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Not a boon for all: New St. Croix bridge cripples some Wisconsin businesses

"I think he (gangster Al Capone, seen in an advertising cutout in the background) would be content with the old bridge; more cop cars could chase him on the new bridge," said Al Severson, 74, owner at B & L Liquor in Houlton, Wis. on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. The the new St. Croix River bridge is turning his once-busy highway into a dead-end street. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)1 / 3
Business is slow during the typical peak afternoon rush of customers at the Marathon Gas - Fastrip store in Houlton, Wis. on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)2 / 3
The new St. Croix River bridge that replaced the Stillwater Lift Bridge on Aug. 2, has rerouted traffic away from the town of Houlton, Wis., turning a once-busy highway into a dead-end street. (File / Pioneer Press) 3 / 3

STILLWATER, Minn. — Al Severson takes the new St. Croix River bridge to Stillwater or St. Paul.

But the same bridge is probably going to take him somewhere else — to bankruptcy.

That's because his B&L Liquor store has seen an 85 percent drop in business since the bridge opened Aug. 2, Severson says.

The Stillwater Lift Bridge that led drivers to the Wisconsin town of Houlton has been closed and traffic rerouted to the new bridge, turning his once-busy highway into a dead-end street.

"That bridge is probably going to take me under. That is what I am in fear of," said Severson, 74.

The new bridge, which crosses the river at Oak Park Heights, is making a lot of people happy.

Commuters are shaving minutes off their drive, bicyclists love the new path over the river, and businesses applaud the end of traffic jams in downtown Stillwater. Some Wisconsin property owners say it will make their lives easier and boost their property values.

But Houlton, pop. 386, is the place that progress has bypassed.

Businesses that once had a good location on busy Wisconsin 35 find themselves gasping for air as the bridge has strangled their traffic.

The traffic from the new bridge travels on Wisconsin 64, passing over the old Wisconsin 35 with no access ramps. From that point, Wisconsin 35 continues north only to stop abruptly after two miles.

Business at the area's only convenience store and gas station, Marathon Gas, has plummeted, according to clerk Roxy Rockwood.

She noticed the change the day after the lift bridge closed and the new bridge opened. "It was dramatic," said Rockwood, who is worried about losing her job. "We still get business from locals, but not from anyone driving through."

 The drop in traffic, however, has not been especially harmful for the construction, boating and home-heating businesses in the area.

Terry Smith says his business has actually been helped by the bridge. He owns Anderson Heating, and even though it's now on a dead-end street, it never depended on high traffic flow.

"No one comes here and shops," said Smith. Instead, he dispatches service trucks around the area, and they have a much easier time getting to Stillwater with the new bridge.

"Our service to customers has improved tremendously," said Smith.

At Bridgeport Marine, employee Brian McCurdy said business does not depend on impulse purchases of passing drivers. "Anyone can see the traffic going by is way down," he said. "I think business is down a little bit. It's hard to tell."

One mile away, it's not hard for Severson to see the difference. He has owned B&L Liquor for 30 years, and he isn't sure if he will make it to 31.

"From the very first day, everyone went around us," he said. He has already laid off two employees.

He has seen an increase in one type of traffic — bikes. But bicyclists usually don't stop in for a six-pack.

He mentioned two other businesses that he knows are also in jeopardy.

"I worry about staying in business. I am starting to have thoughts about that," said Severson. "It's like a ghost town here."