Last year, we looked optimistically at the beginning of the new Roaring 20s. Unfortunately, the proud roar of a lion turned into the evil hiss of an asp. However, there were some positives for the community despite the pandemic and we are certain we won’t be snake bitten in 2021.

Statewide closures of recreation facilities and hybrid schooling enabled the expedited construction at Lion John Weicht Park and the multipurpose facility, now known as the Furniture and Things Community Event Center. We are excited to celebrate a grand opening in 2021 and see the first season of play at the Lion John Weicht Park softball fields.

The pandemic economy pushed interest rates to record lows and the city was able to refund (refinance) three existing bonds and sold new bonds for the expansion of the Public Safety Facility and the construction of Fire Station #3. With interest rates ranging from 0.79 to 1.39%, we saved taxpayers over $1.2 million in interest for bond repayment. Our first-year sales tax collection exceeded expectations by over 30%. If this trend continues, the Active Elk River bonds will be retired early, and the sales tax will end. The city, ISD #728 and Sherburne County closely collaborated on projects to reduce multiple contractor mobilizations and to utilize state and federal grant money. Lastly, our unprecedented five elections were carried out safely and securely.

The Public Safety Facility improvement completion is expected by spring. This project will build out the police station second floor office space, expand the parking garage to protect police vehicles and equipment, add fire department office space, firefighter decontamination chambers and training rooms. Fire Station #3, near Twin Lakes Elementary, will ensure continuity of fire protection during Highway 169 construction and serve our primary residential growth area. The new station should be open in late 2021.

Lake Orono dredging will begin in January. The project bids came in well below estimates and we are excited to witness the removal of 125,000 cubic yards of sediment, the restoration of fish habitat and recreational improvements. Lakeshore residents have been very patient as they saw the drawdown of the lake last September for this Active Elk River project.

Other Active Elk River projects under construction in 2021 include Orono Park, the Youth Athletic Complex (YAC) and a connecting trail into Woodland Trails Regional Park. After seven months of planning, bids will be accepted in January and ground will be broken in April to improve Lake Orono beach access, add modern restrooms, a large splashpad, pickleball courts and trail connections. The YAC had ballfield lights added in 2020 along with a playground and will receive modern restrooms and updates to the concession/storage building this spring.

Residents and visitors may notice construction preparations along Highway 169 as utility companies begin relocation work for the anticipated construction of the 169 Redefine project start in late 2022. The Minnesota Department of Transportation will complete reconstruction of Highway 10 from Simonet Drive to Northfolk Avenue. In addition to the full pavement replacement, the project includes the addition of a lighted trail connecting Orono Park/YMCA and downtown Elk River.

The City Council and Planning Commission expect to finish the City Comprehensive Plan update by late summer. Work on the plan began in the fall of 2020 and when complete will be the long-term plan for city development for the next 20 years. The plan will identify future roadway needs, designate commercial, industrial, residential, and recreational areas, and recommend changes to the city’s zoning ordinances. The EDA will approve their new strategic plan in January and begin its implementation, which will occur over the next five years.

We will also be soliciting developer concepts for redevelopment of the Main/Gates area east of downtown. The Housing and Redevelopment Authority-led project began with the acquisition of available residential and commercial properties. The buildings were either relocated or demolished to create a new opportunity to reignite investment in and around downtown.

The new year will also be a season of street improvements. Every other year, the city initiates large-scale street reconstruction and mill and overlay projects to maintain our city roadways. This work maximizes the lifespan of city streets and ensures efficient traffic movement.

At City Hall, we will welcome our newest member of the City Council, Mike Beyer. Mike replaces Nate Ovall who chose not to return to the council. Nate will continue to serve the community as a member of the HRA and the Joint Finance Committee. Mike will also serve on the EDA and will be the council liaison to the Planning Commission.

As we close the door on a strange, but successful 2020, we are prepared for almost anything our future holds. The lessons we learned when the asp hisses, keep your head down and find a new way, shed your old skin for a new look, stay calm and slither on. — Cal Portner, Elk River city administrator

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