Belknap Street is ready for its closeup. After two years of construction, visitors will find smooth pavement, handicapped-accessible sidewalks and a lack of orange barrels.
"I love Belknap now," said Amy Sipola, manager of Video Vision and Superior Tan. "It's beautiful."
She's impressed with the width of the traffic lanes, trees, landscaping, lampposts and architecture. Katie (Nummi) Perrault, manager of Nummi Jewelers, appreciates the larger sidewalks.
"Our customers are just thrilled with how easy it is to get places and how nice it looks," Perrault said. "I feel like it cleaned up the city and it gives you a very Superior impression of our great city."
Traffic has begun to pick up over the past two weeks as drivers find their way back to Belknap.
"I want to see people on it," said Lindsey Jacobson, executive director of the Superior Business Improvement District. "I want to see people using it, walking on it. It looks so amazing. It's such a wonderful thing for our community."
The $23 million project, funded with city, state and federal dollars, tore out and rebuilt the 1.4-mile roadway and what was beneath. Storm sewers and early-1900s water lines were replaced. Coal vaults still attached to some buildings were uncovered and filled. Sand and open-graded gravel was layered under the roadway to shed water into and underdrain system that feeds to the storm sewers, keeping the base layers drier and cutting down on frost problems.
"The lack of that system was probably one of the biggest reasons that the road was as bad as it was," said Project Manager Brendan Dirkes with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Safety was a key part of the street design.
"Originally, there were three times the statewide average of crashes prior to the roadway being reconstructed," said Stephanie King, project design leader with the DOT, including side swipes from cars adjusting where the lanes moved back and forth around turn lanes.
Drivers may not catch all the built-in safety features, which run the gamut from 16 fewer access points and lanes that all line up to concrete pedestrian refuge islands, curb bump-outs and flashing beacons at heavier-used crosswalks.
"It just forces people to drive more safely," Jacobson said.
The two-year construction process took its toll on businesses in the work zone.
"My numbers could have been better but we held throughout," Perrault said. "We're pretty blessed to have amazing customers."
Business dwindled toward the end of summer as some customers gave up trying to navigate the maze of cones and barrels, Sipola said.
"Like everybody said, if you made it through this, you can make it through anything and I made it," said Angie Colborn, owner of Angie's Closet. "Barely, but I made it. It was tough."
They said the work crews were easy to work with.
"All in all, I think the construction people did a fabulous job trying to make things workable for us," Sipola said.
Keeping the lines of communication through weekly meetings with the city and meetings every other week with businesses and the public helped, Dirkes said. And they adapted when issues cropped up.
"So much thought and care for businesses went into this," Jacobson said.
There will be a little more work in the spring, Dirkes said, revolving around landscaping, erecting fences and a final punch list review of the project to check on anything that was done incorrectly or didn't hold up. The outside lanes could be closed as needed to facilitate the work, which isn't expected to start until May.
Dirkes said the project looks like it will be within 2 percent of its budget. After two years on the project, he's ready to move on.
"On the other hand, for me with the DOT, it's kind of a rare project for us up here," Dirkes said. "We're usually out in the country or down Highway 53. We deal in gravel, asphalt and paint and to have a job like this where it really changes the landscape, that's kind of a neat feeling, just doing something somewhat decorative and hopefully to bring more people and businesses to the area."
Driving Belknap Street now, it's easy to forget how rough it was, Dirkes said, but anyone who drove it this summer got to experience both the before and after versions of Belknap.
The project won't be officially done until June 30, 2019, but the time to celebrate is now.
"They're going to do the ribbon cutting next year but I thought we need to let people know hey, it's open," Colborn said.
And it's worth a fresh look.
"I usually don't have a lot of reason to drive Belknap," Dirkes said. "I live outside of town so I come in, I'm either cutting across down south or I come to the north end to our office, but now I try to make a point to change my route just to drive through it. Kind of nice to look at everything."