As with many ongoing projects, COVID-19 has thrown a hurdle in the planning process of the Central Mississippi River Regional Planning Partnership (CMRP) – a collaborative effort between cities and townships along the Mississippi River in both Wright and Sherburne counties.
Like many other aspects of life in the pandemic, CMRP has been forced to adapt and change. Wright County Commissioner Darek Vetsch, who serves as the chairman of CMRP, said that there were unknowns this spring about getting community and business input in the early stages of the planning process. But, he was extremely happy with the amount of participation that has come from residents, businesses and local governments about the project that looks at planning from a regional perspective instead of a single-county or local level process.
“We had a better engagement than we thought we would given the pandemic,” Vetsch said. “We had intended to have a blended community engagement of in-person and online, but COVID turned it into completely online. We were pleasantly surprised. We figured we had a 50/50 chance of either being a huge success or a disaster. It shows that people are still willing to engage during this strange period of time. Our public input stage participation has been outstanding.”
Some of the public outreach events CMRP was planning have been derailed by COVID-19, but the work has continued to move forward thanks to the community engagement.
In fact, the pandemic has changed the paradigm of many business models over the last several months and has been used as a tool to help CMRP look at a collective vision with unforeseen factors thrown in front of them.
“We’ve had to slow things down by two or three months because there have been so much that has changed in all our lives since we started in January,” Vetsch said. “Things have plodded forward quite well, but one thing that has happened is that we’ve had to look at how things are going to look post-pandemic in a new virtual world from a commercial standpoint.”
When CMRP was created, many believed it was an extension of previous work to get a river crossing between Monticello and Clearwater – the only current bridge accesses in Wright County.
However, Vetsch said a lot more goes into CMRP. A bridge connecting Wright and Sherburne counties is a key long-term component, but there are also more immediate objectives the group is looking to achieve.
“One of the main components of CMRP is to create a collective planning group,” Vetsch said. “That’s one of the buckets. Then there’s the economic development bucket that we can work as a region to create robust economic development for the region. That’s another bucket. Then there’s the infrastructure bucket, which is fiber and a river crossing. There are a lot of pieces that we’re combining and each of them is important in their own right.”
Wright County Commissioner Mike Potter, who has long been a champion of transportation issues in the county as well as being a strong supporter of demonstrating the clear need for another river crossing in Wright County, commended Vetsch for the tireless work Vetsch and the members of the CMRP work group have been able to accomplish.
Potter knows as well as anyone that getting federal funding for a bridge crossing the Mississippi River doesn’t come easily or quickly.
“The way the world is now, if you want to get a river crossing, that is a very high mountain to climb,” Potter said. “Just look at the Stillwater bridge. That took 40 years to get done. That was beyond ridiculous to go that long. I appreciate that Commissioner Vetsch is taking this to the next step so we can have our partners together and knock down some of those barriers. This may take 20 years to get done, but we need to take the steps to get us on the map as a regional group that is working together to get this accomplished. You’ve got to aim high and keep pushing to get this done so we can get our bite of the apple.”
While COVID-19 has put a damper on the short-time timeline that CMRP envisioned early in 2020, it hasn’t lessened the enthusiasm of those working on the project.
It may take two decades to accomplish, but Vetsch said there is a lot of positive things that can be accomplished for the residents of both counties as they plan their futures together instead of separately.
“Right now, we’re trying to manage expectations,” Vetsch said. “We know that river crossings take time and we’re cognizant of that. While we can put all the pieces in place to eventually get to the front of the line, we can do a lot of good work with economic development and regional planning to help both Wright and Sherburne counties.”