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Erik Burgess, Published November 24 2012

Business owners bristle at plans to widen Main Avenue in Fargo

FARGO – For business owners, there’s nothing better than setting up shop on the main strip.

That’s why a proposed city project to widen Main Avenue has some business owners worried about relocating.

While the project is still in the planning phase, the top alternative is to buy out most of the properties on the north side of Main from University Drive to 21st Street in order to install a center turn lane and widen sidewalks.

City officials say bought-out businesses will be reimbursed the cost of relocating, though they didn’t discuss which specific properties would be affected.

But for Craig Boisjolie, who has run Site on Sound at 1443 Main Avenue for 30 years, there is no contingency plan for uprooting his business.

“Moving’s never in the budget,” he said. “You spend 30 years or all your time advertising or promoting where you’re located, and then to be losing that is huge.”

A ‘prime location’

City officials say the two-mile stretch needs to be widened to make it safer for both drivers and pedestrians.

That expanse of road handles 20,000 cars a day and has had 62 accidents in the past two years, planners for the Metropolitan Council of Governments said.

But business owners on the north side say the project is unneeded, arguing that Main Avenue is no more dangerous than any other major corridor.

“People that know how to drive Fargo traffic know how to deal with Main Avenue,” Boisjolie said. “It could be better, but I mean, it’s not to the point of having to kick businesses out of here.”

Todd Lunday, who owns and operates Sioux Wholesale at 1549 Main Ave., argued that bad drivers are to blame, not the corridor. Sioux Wholesale has been in the same building since 1946, Lunday said, and operating on the main drag can’t be reimbursed.

“This is prime location, and I doubt if we’re going to get a place on Main Avenue again,” he said. “It’s going to be like having to start a new business all over again.”

Four alternative plans have been drawn up by MetroCOG, but the option to buy out most of the north-side businesses seems to be “the most preferred,” said Wade Kline, the group’s executive director.

“At this point, it appears to be the most technically feasible, and it would meet what we consider to be the purpose and need of the project,” Kline said.

The total cost of the project comes in at $5.7 million, with $4 million going to construction and $1.7 million being used for property acquisition. Relocation costs have not been calculated, and which businesses would be bought out has not yet been decided.

Kline said because the project is federally funded, the city would be required to ensure any acquired property owners are “taken care of.”

“Obviously it’s not easy to move and relocate businesses,” he said.

The federal government cost-share for such projects is 80 percent, with the state and local governments each picking up 10 percent of the bill, Kline said. The project won’t start until federal funding is available, at the earliest in 2017.

Eliminating alternatives

The other three lesser-preferred MetroCOG plans for widening that stretch of road are either more costly or do little to improve traffic safety.

The plan ranked second would include buying properties on both the north and south sides at a cost of $10.9 million, $5 million for construction and $5.9 million for buyouts.

The No. 3-ranked plan calls for only south-side properties to be bought out, but planners said it has drawn mostly negative feedback at public meetings. It would cost $9 million, with $4.3 million for construction and $4.7 million for buyouts.

For Rick Nymark, who owns Mom’s Kitchen Inc. on the south side of Main Avenue, clearing the north side of the road is best for the city, provided those owners are appropriately reimbursed, he said.

“You can clear it up, kinda make it a park. You can put big wide sidewalks on that side,” he said, adding that a center turn lane would help his customers.

But some complications arise. Several north-side owners lease land from Burlington Northern Sante Fe LLC, Kline said, and that land would have to be acquired from the railroad company.

Lunday, of Sioux Wholesale, said he will be speaking to his company lawyer about falling back on their 100-year lease, which they signed in 1946.

“We signed that lease, and we should be able to stay here,” Lunday said.

And while Kline says a final decision is far from being made, north-side owners say they believe their days are numbered.

“They obviously labeled it plan A for a reason,” said Scott Starry, branch manager of Air-Hydraulic Systems at 1517 Main Ave.

Kline said MetroCOG has been pushing city leaders to expedite the planning process so business owners can begin preparing.

A $5.2 million alternative has also been proposed. It would fix up sidewalks but does little to improve traffic safety and drew little support from staffers. Construction costs were at $4 million, with $1.2 for buying property.

The widening project is a part of a larger Main Avenue Corridor Study, which is looking at ways to rebuild the major road from the Red River to 25th Street.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518