Before the Ramsey City Council and Anoka County Board in 2007 approved a Sunfish Lake Boulevard reconstruction project north of Highway 10, business owners in a shopping center on the northwest corner expressed concern that the new median would put them out of business.
Over six years later, the Sunfish Commons shopping center is mostly vacant. There is still a restaurant anchor tenant, but that has changed hands more than once.
Most recently on Jan. 24, the Sunfish Express Shell gas station that included a fast food sub shop and Mexican restaurant shuttered its doors.
Frank Yamoutpor had owned the gas station since it opened in 2003. He claims that business dropped 50 percent when the median went in.
“When it drops like that you don’t have the money to invest to improve your business,” he said.
Yamoutpor was one of the people who raised concerns before the council approved the more than $1.8 million project on a 4-2 vote Nov. 13, 2007.
The concern Yamoutpor and other business owners on the northwest corner of this intersection had was that customers could no longer turn left from Sunfish Lake Boulevard to get to the business center. They would have to turn right from Highway 10 past Sunfish Lake Boulevard or make a U-turn at Bunker Lake Boulevard.
Pam Chambers of Fantastic Sam’s tearfully said at the Nov. 13, 2007 council meeting, “I know our business won’t survive the construction.”
Gaughan Companies was once part of the shopping center’s ownership group. Patrick Gaughan said when the median went in there was a liquor store, Fantastic Sam’s, Spectators Sports Bar and Grill, Mansetti’s, Forever Floral, a catering company, and an insurance company.
Much of the signage today is advertising the Suntide Commercial real estate leasing company out of St. Paul. Willy McCoys is the anchor restaurant tenant. The shopping center is now owned by Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society of Omaha, Neb.
Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look was one of two Ramsey councilmembers who voted against the project in 2007. He feels most people choose “the path of least resistance” and will go elsewhere if a business is too difficult to get to.
“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes it’s not always the outcome you want,” Look said.
Dennis Berg was chairperson of the Anoka County Board at the time and he was among the majority who believed the project would make this intersection safer. At the time, the county said it was the fifth most dangerous intersection in the country. In 2007, Berg said there had been 84 accidents and two fatalities since 2001.
According to the Anoka County Highway Department, there were 40 crashes at this intersection between 2008 and 2012 with one crash in 2012 resulting in two fatalities. There were an average of 8,300 vehicles a day in 2011 and 8,900 vehicles a day in 2013.
Berg said he does not know these business operations well enough to know why they failed, but he does not believe the median is to blame.
“I don’t think the road is the problem,” Berg told ABC Newspapers.
Berg said the Minnesota Department of Transportation was hesitant to allow the direct access from Highway 10 to the commercial center with it being so close to Sunfish Lake Boulevard, but that access remains. The railroad tracks made it impossible to provide full, or even a three-quarters, access to businesses on both sides, he said.
Plants and Things owner Larry Hickman has been located on the northeast corner of Highway 10 and Sunfish Lake Boulevard for 34 years. He believes the gas station blocking the view of the shopping center for westbound Highway 10 traffic has had an impact as well. The shopping center was built two years before the gas station, according to county tax records.
Hickman said business has been good over the past eight years with the exception of 2007, which he blamed on the economic recession. He still has accesses off Highway 10 and Sunfish Lake Boulevard. His business is affected when customers want to head east on Highway 10 because they can no longer turn directly left onto Sunfish Lake Boulevard.
Yamoutpor is now trying to figure out how to sell his property. He thinks it will be hard to do – not only because of the median, but because this property would be affected if MnDOT builds an interchange, which is the long-term plan for the intersection.
Look said a request for $10 million per year for a new fund dedicated to purchasing right-of-way along Highway 10 for future improvement projects is one of the county’s goals for this state legislative session. With properties currently being valued lower, it makes sense to purchase them now, according to Look.
This initiative would be similar to the Right-of-way Acquisition Loan Fund program the Minnesota Legislature established in 1982. Anoka County and cities along Highway 10 have used this fund to purchase some properties.
The big difference is Anoka County wants these dollars to stay in its borders, so the county is calling this proposal the Right-of-Way Acquisition for Ten Expansion.
“(The intersection) needed to be fixed. It was a dangerous road,” said Hickman, who continues to do business at the corner of Sunfish and Highway 10. “The median was a good thing, but not for businesses. But I believe if you have a good business and people want your product, you’ll do business.”
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org