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Devils Lake revises downtown infrastructure project

DEVILS LAKE — Longtime City Engineer Mike Grafsgaard says public input meetings for road improvement projects generally don't draw a crowd, but that was not the case at a recent open house to discuss downtown infrastructure.

"We had 30 people there, and that speaks volumes for the interest of downtown," Grafsgaard said.

Three years ago, the city budgeted for $300,000 in infrastructure upkeep for 2018, but Grafsgaard said community leaders now are hopping the fast track to add other possible features to take advantage of new state and federal dollars.

"I'm very excited because I think there are many nice things we can do downtown. We can expand our original scope of work," he said. "The governor thinks the downtown is important, and they're going to find the money to make this work."

Grafsgaard was referring to Gov. Doug Burgum's Main Street Initiative, a program designed to help communities promote smart, efficient infrastructure and build vibrant downtowns that, in turn, will attract a skilled workforce.

Devils Lake is lucky, Grafsgaard said, because it is going to be able to tap into North Dakota Department of Transportation money and federal highway dollars before a 2019 federal program is even finalized. That's because the city's original project already had been approved.

The original infrastructure project called for mill and overlay on asphalt portions of downtown and concrete repair on streets and sidewalks.

The recent open house allowed the city to review the quality of existing infrastructure and to weigh public interest in going beyond that basic maintenance.

"We asked if the downtown businesses wanted something more," Grafsgaard said. "Do you want us to repair what's out there, or do you want something beyond that? Do you want some reconstruction? Do you want trees, which we currently don't have downtown? Do you want bushes, benches, trash receptacles? Do you want better lighting, banners, flags? There are many streetscape improvements and softer items that could be included in the roadway corridor."

Grafsgaard said many at the meeting were in favor of expanding the project's scope to include safer crosswalks with larger "bulb-outs" or "bump-outs." Concrete bulb-outs extend the sidewalks at intersections to decrease the amount of unprotected space pedestrians must cross through traffic lanes.

The reconstructed bulb-outs might steal some adjacent parking space, but they also would make room for extra features such as trees, planters, benches and bike racks to enhance the neighborhood feel or warmth of downtown, Grafsgaard said.

People also expressed a need for better lighting in the downtown.

"They want more light, cleaner light, and they want the lights to look very nice, so that's on our list," he said.

At the public meeting, Grafsgaard asked for volunteers for a steering committee that will help the city work through the process. He said a landscape architect will show how proposed features might fit, and the city also will look at ranking different areas for primary, secondary and tertiary treatment. For instance, a centerpiece area such as the intersection of Fourth and Fourth might get more attention.

The key to any additions will be finding the right balance, Grafsgaard said.

"Some businesses are concerned about snow removal, maintenance and trash collection, and we also have snow removal to consider from a Public Works perspective," he said. "Finding a balance between the many niceties within the roadway corridor and future maintenance once you put those niceties in place, that's going to be an important aspect of the project."

Whatever the final plans, Grafsgaard says it's a very tight window. He's running cost estimates now, and the city next will develop detailed plans and specs so project bids can go out this spring. Construction would be completed in 2018.

Grafsgaard said federal funds through the ND-DOT will pay 80 percent of the cost, with the remaining 20 percent covered by a local match. That local portion likely would come from sales taxes and special assessments for the benefiting properties in the downtown district. Those assessments also could be reduced by sales taxes, he said.

"I want to be able to look back 25 years from now and say we did the right thing," Grafsgaard said. "It stood up. It was robust. It was easy to maintain, and it looked pretty darn good. That's the goal we have as we put this project together."