BROOKINGS – The Brookings City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday to commit the funding required for the Brookings Economic Development Corporation’s application for a Federal BUILD Grant, to help fund the development of an interchange to cross Interstate 29 at 20th Street South. 

An amendment laid out a condition that the interchange’s future maintenance be funded by the state.

Councilor Dan Hansen was absent. 

Several citizens spoke in support of the interchange. 

Background

The idea of an interchange has been around for years. Brookings has its main interchange at I-29 and Sixth Street (Highway 14) which carries most of the east-west traffic. There is a bridge that crosses I-29 at 32nd Street South and an interchange at the Highway 14 bypass. 

The council applied for the Federal BUILD Grant last year. The federal program awards grants to only two entities per state a year. Brookings was not one of those two last year. 

“They liked our grant application and encouraged us to reapply this year if funds were allocated, which they were,” said Mayor Keith Corbett on Wednesday.

Estimated project cost last year was $18 million, and the city’s commitment was $3.6 million.

The council plans to apply for the grant again in July. The grant generally funds 80% of a project and desires a local match. 

“The total updated project cost is now expected at $23 million, of which 20% amounts to $4.6 million. A local match will consist of a commitment of $700,000 by private donors, $2 million by Brookings County and the City’s pledge. The City is asked to commit $2 million toward this project. The total $23 million project does encompass the traffic lights and 20th Street South improvements from 22nd Avenue to the proposed interchange. Once built, the state would maintain the interchange,” according to an attachment to the agenda available on the city’s website.

City staff was also verbally advised the project is on the state’s transportation improvement program, also known as STIP, City Manager Paul Briseno said at the meeting. He suggested an amendment to the resolution that acceptance of a successful grant would require the interchange’s future maintenance to be funded by the state.

Public opinions

Carla Gatzke, vice president of human resources at Daktronics, spoke in support of the interchange. Daktronics is located on the east side of I-29, and many of its employees live west and south, across the interstate.

More and more of Daktronics’ employees are choosing to not live in Brookings because technology means more of the professional employees can do their work from anywhere. An increasing number of employees are leaving Brookings to live in Sioux Falls, Gatzke said. 

“Twenty percent of our whole workforce is in Sioux Falls,” Gatzke said. The number has almost doubled in the last five years. Many cite the commute. 

Daktronics is investing significantly in property in Sioux Falls, “millions of dollars over the last few years,” she said, when they would prefer to have employees stay in Brookings so Daktronics could invest in Brookings.

Jay Bender, president and owner of Falcon Plastics, said his company has property east and west of I-29. He’s in favor of the interchange because Brookings is a growing community. He moved to Brookings in 1975; it was a lot smaller then and he’s seen it grow over the years.

“Traffic and safety are only gonna get worse along Sixth Street,” he added.

Businesses on the east side of the interstate employ about 4,000, and “I think that could easily double in the future,” Bender said.

An overpass has been on the city’s plan for 20 years and “there’s no debate about whether it’s needed or not. It is needed for the future,” Bender said.

If Brookings wants federal help in funding this interchange, “we have to be consistent in telling them that we need this,” Bender said, adding it took the City of Tea four times before they got a similar project.

He pointed out the council is being asked for a little more than half of the money that they committed to last year.

“This is about the future,” Bender said, adding it was for “our grandkids and their grandkids.”

He knows it’s not an easy decision because of the financial considerations, but the interchange is “something that we need if we want this community to keep growing,” he said.

Regan Rohl, an investor, talked about how having more access will generate property tax and sales tax. 

“There’s a fantastic return on investment,” he said.

Al Kurtenbach is founder of Daktronics and current chairman of the East Brookings Business and Industry Association board, which strongly supports the interchange.

He found an old map of Brookings from 1964, when the east boundary of the city was 22nd Avenue. The interstate was under design back then. 

“It took us, the City of Brookings, a while to get across the interstate,” Kurtenbach said. Now, the east border of Brookings is a mile east of 22nd Avenue at 34th Avenue. 

He pointed out the city, county and business community have joined together to support the interchange.

“This is really something for the future,” Kurtenbach said, adding he was 85 years old. “I don’t expect I’ll benefit a lot from it in my lifetime. It’s really for our children.”

They used to talk about retail business leaking into Sioux Falls, but now it’s residents that are leaking out of town “and it’s because we make it too difficult for them here. Putting in the proper infrastructure will really help remove a lot of that difficulty,” he said.

He acknowledged there is a cost, but there will be a huge return on investment, saying every university graduate that stays and works here will spend their money here.

If the council persists in seeking this interchange, Brookings will get it, like Tea got theirs, and Spearfish now has five interchanges, Kurtenbach said.

“We have the potential here and we can do great,” Kurtenbach said.

Dennis Bielfeldt of Den-Wil Investments was also in favor of the interchange, even though he isn’t involved in the project.

“This is just the right thing to do,” he said. “Let’s get this done for the community of Brookings.”

John Mills of Mills Development, and a state representative, brought up kids’ safety. Kids who live in Aurora go to school in Brookings. To get there, they cross I-29 at Sixth Street.

“And it’ll only take one bad accident for us to realize how much the safety for those kids will be improved if they have a direct shot, which 20th Street South is,” Mills said.

He said he was talking to people from Brandon about the interchange. 

“The first comment out of the banker’s mouth was ‘that would be a game-changer for Brookings,’” Mills said. “I believe the same.”

Matt Schmidt of Windermere Way questioned putting the interchange on 20th Street South due to the possibility of flooding.

“Why not make it 32nd Street South?” he asked.

The bridge on 32nd Street South is a 1966 model, said Jason Bowes, president and owner of Bowes Construction, located on 22nd Avenue South.

“That was knocked out of commission here five, six years ago by a careless equipment hauler that did not put the excavator boom down low enough and hit the bridge,” Bowes said.

He added his employees haul stuff across that bridge every day. It has low clearance over the interstate. It’s very narrow so people have to wait until farm equipment gets across; it’s also hard to see the equipment coming because of the design of the bridge.

“It’s an old bridge and it would cost more to remove everything that’s there … than to start somewhere new,” Bowes said.

The landowners near the planned site of the 20th Street South interchange are all in support of it, he added.

“It might be a little different story down on 32nd,” he said.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We’ve got the federal government looking at us, at a big opportunity here,” Bowes said.

Council comments

Councilor Patty Bacon said she’s been struggling with this decision and had to take a hard look at the finances.

“We are thrilled that the ask is down to $2 million from what it was before,” Bacon said.

Councilor Ope Niemeyer appreciated the lower monetary commitment for the city, as well, and the city has a huge commitment from the private sector, too.

“I felt that was very important that this is a public/private partnership,” he said, adding it includes federal government, county, city and private individuals.

With the city investing $2 million on a $20 million project, “this is no different than an improvement we would do on the airport,” Niemeyer said. “The federal government is kicking in 80 to 90 percent.

“The federal government should be part of this. I mean, it’s gonna be their property when we’re all done with this, anyway,” Niemeyer said.

The city’s reserves can probably cover its part of expenses and “we have room to get ready for it,” he added.

Councilor Nick Wendell said people were nervous about the dollar amount, but he pointed out the $2 million was a smaller amount than past commitments, and he invites them “to dig a bit deeper on these positive impacts of this project” and welcomes more conversation.

Wendell also pointed out the value of timing and that the federal government is willing to partner with the city, county and the private sector.

“I think it’s very important people understand that this will open up access to 200 acres for economic development plus residential,” Corbett said.

Environmental sustainability will be impacted when folks no longer have to drive a longer distance, he added.

“Just think about the carbon footprint that will be changed,” Corbett said.

COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register

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