Elkader businesses address impacts of Keystone Bridge closure

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The disruption in the Keystone Bridge rehab project has impacted the overall project timeline, shut down pedestrian access and all major work until a viable solution can be found and led to an increase of traffic on Highway 13, leading some residents to feel unsafe traveling on the road. But aside from these frustrations and inconveniences, the project has also impacted local businesses and organizations to varying degrees. (Photo by Willis Patenaude)

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

The disruption in the Keystone Bridge rehab project has impacted the overall project timeline (it’s now expected to roll over into next year), shut down pedestrian access and all major work until a viable solution can be found and led to an increase of traffic on Highway 13, leading some residents to feel unsafe traveling on the road. 

 

But aside from these frustrations and inconveniences, the project has also impacted local businesses and organizations to varying degrees. Some recently provided insight into that impact during a series of interviews. 

 

One entity that hasn’t seen a noticeable decline in foot traffic is the Elkader Public Library. In fact, director Lisa Pope noted that, instead of a decline, they’ve actually increased numbers for the summer reading program, while additional events and story times haven’t had any drop-off in attendance. 

 

Pope attributed this to loyal library users who will always “find a way” to make it and because, often times, a trip to the library is planned rather than spur of the moment. This aspect benefits the library in a way other businesses can’t always rely upon. 

 

One of those businesses is the Elkader Pizzeria. There has been a slowdown in lunch customers, and pizza orders have been “down slightly,” according to owner Bryton Rentschler, who said some of the decline is due to fewer campground visitors making the trip to downtown. 

 

At Emerald Grove Boutique, Joelle Davis, still a relatively new business owner, commented on the possibility that her store is also missing out on some campers. She added that, overall, foot traffic to her store hasn’t seen much of a decline. Davis attributed this to her new location on Main Street versus previous locations, which weren’t as centrally located for stable numbers. 

 

However, Davis also acknowledged she has increased advertising, which she said was most likely a subconscious response to the bridge closure, an inconvenience she believes the city “handled the best they could.” 

 

“It stressed me out a little bit, but you just do the best you can,” Davis said. 

 

Another business that reported a decline in customers was Schera’s, with owner Brian Bruening stating that “May seemed to be slower than usual.” Bruening admitted this might be from other factors, like the abnormally hot weather, but added “the inability to get across the river without going on Highway 13 seems to have changed things.” 

 

One of those changes is the challenge the closure has created for employees travelling to work. While all bridge closures crate an inconvenience, Bruening hopes the end result is worth it in this case. 

 

“There was no question that the bridge needed repairs, and when pedestrian access was going to be maintained throughout the project, the disruption seemed like it would be minimal. I hope the walkway is reopened quickly [and] I hope work stoppages…don’t extend the timeframe of the project months later,” Bruening said. 

 

As far as what Main Street Elkader (MSE), the Elkader Chamber of Commerce and the city are doing for businesses, most offered praise and appreciation. 

 

Rentschler stated, “they do well for the whole community,” and discussed the cross-promotional “Light up the Night” event. Davis was also complimentary toward efforts, calling them “proactive” in how they’ve handled the situation on social media, with posts about getting to town and reminding people the stores are still open. Likewise, Bruening highlighted the events MSE and the chamber have been holding. He remains hopeful they will increase foot traffic. 

 

According to MSE Director Samantha Baumgartner, the organization has done a lot to minimize the impact of the bridge closure and loss of pedestrian access. Baumgartner is aware some businesses have informed her about a decline in customers compared to last year, while others have remained steady. 

 

The main cause, according to feedback Baumgartner received during routine visits to businesses, is from the loss of campers who aren’t coming into town this year.

 

In an effort to combat the issue, Baumgartner noted several things MSE, among others, are doing to increase traffic. One is through the community marketing committee, which has started doing ads in multiple magazines, ordered Burma Shave signs to put out along the highway detour to encourage downtown visitors and is working on plans for online advertising to grow tourism. 

 

MSE is currently working on a downtown directory map to give to each business. An Elkader pull-up banner was purchased and will be displayed at the state fair, county fair and other large visitor venues to grow awareness about Elkader. 

 

Additionally, Elkader rack cards have been purchased, featuring highlights of town, and are being shared at campgrounds in the region as well as at visitor centers. 

 

Baumgartner also mentioned the recent “Light up the Night” event, upcoming Art in the Park and the free business coaching available through Clayton County Development Group and Main Street Iowa.

 

Baumgartner concurred the closure and detour is inconvenient, but offered an alternative point of view. In discussions with visitors, many have questions about the bridge, and after seeing the work being done, become curious about the history. 

 

Some visitors who previously utilized the pedestrian access expressed disappointment, but also shared an understanding and, according to Baumgartner, a “support of the project” that is meant to preserve history. 

 

“One of my favorite comments was from a group of frequent out-of-town visitors to downtown who had never explored other parts of Elkader. The detour took them to areas of Elkader they didn’t know existed and grew their love for our town even more—an unexpected perk of the bridge closure,” Baumgartner said. 

 

Despite this, there was one business that was generally outspoken about the closure: Turkey River Mall, owned by Tim and Becky Dietzler. The two brought up a slew of connecting issues, such as detour signage, semi trucks crossing the bridge and, of course, a drop in foot traffic. 

 

Beginning with the decline in customers, Becky shared that fewer people are coming in the door and the impact the closure has had on business from campers. According to numbers provided by Becky, the mall was down 208 customers for the month of May, compared to last year. 

 

The Dietzlers laid much of the blame on poor detour signage, with Tim suggesting people are being scared away by bad directions. 

 

Becky told the story of some customers who claimed they got lost for over 20 minutes trying to find their way to downtown, all due to confusion caused by the signs. 

 

Elkader City Administrator Jennifer Cowsert shed some light on this problem. “First, let’s acknowledge that this is a DOT project and the DOT dictates their own detours and signs. But, yes, we have received feedback about the signs being used for the detours. We have supplemented with our own signs both in town and on Highway 13,” she said, adding that she, as well as other city officials, are open to constructive suggestions. 

 

The other issue mentioned by the Dietzlers concerned the bridge closure and how it might’ have been avoided if semi trucks had not been allowed to consistently cross the Keystone Bridge over the years. 

 

The Dietzlers argued the city should have taken a tougher stance on stopping the trucks because preventing overweight trucks from crossing would have helped preserve the bridge. They said they have reported trucks on several occasions, but nothing seems to be done about it. 

 

In response, Cowsert noted the five-ton weight limit on vehicles crossing the bridge, but acknowledged that, unless an officer is sitting there to catch trucks in the act, “there is little that can be done.” 

 

However, she added, “I do take the truck information and contact the trucking company. A lot of times that works…I know people always say that if one truck gets ticketed then others will hear about it and won’t use the bridge. That does not appear to be accurate, as the police have ticketed trucks and the problem continues.”

 

Elkader Police Chief Mitch Seitz, commented, “The police department does stop overweight loads. That said, it does happen. We have three officers that cover 168 hours per week. Simply put, we can’t be there every time. We need evidence and we hear these complaints sometimes two weeks after the truck crossed…Obviously, if we see something go over the bridge, we address it.”

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