Small town gets ready to grow
LAKE ELMO, Minn. — The little town of Lake Elmo is about to grow up, and not everyone in the area is happy about it.
Town officials will meet April 17 and are expected to approve a concept that would triple the size of the downtown and begin preparations on building hundreds of new houses that will change the face of this quaint little town of 7,000 just southwest of Stillwater.
If all goes as planned, the vote will finally put to an end the resistance the town has put up in the face of population growth in the Twin Cities.
While many cities have been scrambling to expand, building to accommodate the Twin Cities sprawl, Lake Elmo stood alone for years.
It was the only city out of more than 190 in the metro area to fight the Metropolitan Council’s mandated growth targets. The battle cost Lake Elmo $365,000 in legal fees and went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"Once something is gone, it’s gone forever," former mayor Susan Dunn said. "Progress is progress, but let’s define progress. Maybe progress is to leave it alone."
The project is known as the Old Village plan, which will bring a revamped downtown and is aiming for 24,000 residents by 2030.
"I really believe in this plan," Mayor Dean Johnston said.
It will use the historic downtown as a core, include a slew of trails, sidewalks and parks and transform Highway 5 into a main street through town.
"It is the beginning of the end for Lake Elmo," said Ed Gorman, owner of Gorman’s Restaurant. "It will not be the same town."
Johnston is among a new contingent of more optimistic city officials. He points to Red Wing and St. Peter as two charming downtowns with highways running through them.
"If you like downtown now, you will like it when we are done," said Robert Engstrom, owner of Robert Engstrom Cos., which is planning the project.
To pay for the plan, the city is adding between 600 and 1,500 new homes to bring in more tax revenue. Most of the homes will be close to the downtown and a new YMCA, arts center and city hall.
The plan could take as long as 15 years to come to fruition and will cost more than $400 million for the houses alone.
For a town with an annual budget of $3.5 million, that’s a lot to swallow for some.
"This is a grandiose plan that scares me to death," said Pat Hagberg, the co-owner of Hagberg’s Country Market on Minnesota 5. "We have a peaceful little setting now, but I think we will become another Woodbury."