Wauzeka open despite highway construction

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By Steve Van Kooten


There were two orange and white signs stationed just past the intersection of WIS-60 and Upper Bridgeport Rd. blocking part of both lanes. Four miles down the state road, another set of barricades encroached on the traffic lanes. One read, “Road Closed to Thru Traffic,” while the other said “Access to Local Businesses.” Seven miles farther was Wauzeka, a small town with its gut torn out as construction trucks rattled its rocky streets.

The construction was a 10.9 mile stretch of the highway that closed off the road between Bridgeport and through Wauzeka. The work was scheduled to start on April 23, 2023, to replace portions of Wauzeka’s storm and water system as well as re-pave asphalt both inside and outside the village.

Wauzeka, with a population of approximately 700, was like one of the small river towns that sprung up along the Mississippi River, except their river was a highway that brought traffic to the town’s businesses. It has depended on passers-by to help support the restaurant, the gas station and a handful of other enterprises.

The problem has been nobody  was coming.

“We’re down 90 percent; all these businesses are down. This town is not big enough to support us,” Andrea Maier, owner of Driftless Gems, said. “We rely on the outside traffic.” For Maier, the problem started back in May when construction began and they closed off the road at Bridgeport. Maier stated signs were not put up at the farthest barricades to indicate local traffic was still allowed to access Wauzeka; instead, they were utilized at the second set of barriers. Traffic slowed and many customers were reluctant to travel, concerned they would be ticketed.

“That’s the assumption everyone is under,” Maier said. Maier stated the Sheriff’s Department was stuck with a difficulty situation, just like the towns people.

“I don’t think the original message was sent out very well,” Ben McCullick, owner of Christianson Feed Mill, said. In the initial village meetings, the message was traffic to local businesses wouldn’t be affected. “They told us then, and I told my customers, ‘you’re fine to come in.’ They told me they cannot stop people from coming in.”

McCullick stated his business hadn’t seen the drop in sales that others in town experienced, but there’s been consequences. “I’ve had customers not coming. It’s a little bit of an inconvenience.” McCullick went on to state the effect on his business was “minor.”

For the other businesses, the impact has been significant: Driftless Gems reported a 90 percent decrease in sales, the BP gas station stated sales were down “at least 40 percent,” and the Boondocks Sports Bar and Grill had lost between 40-50 percent in sales since the construction started.

“They have a ‘business open’ sign, but then you get half-way and they still have the barriers that say, ‘road closed.’” Mellisa Martin, Manager at Boondocks, said. “That’s frustrating too—you tell people you’re open, then they get to the barrier and just turn back.” More recently, a ‘businesses open’ sign had been added to the second barrier. 

Like Driftless Gems, the feed mill and the gas station, Boondocks stayed open through the project to keep traffic flow to the town. “It’s short term construction, but a long-term effect on the town if businesses go down.”

The businesses in Wauzeka found themselves in a difficult position: the improvements from the construction project were acknowledged as necessary, but the village suffered problems as the project progressed. For Maier, new signs weren’t enough,

“The damage was already done. I understand we live in Wisconsin, and we have road construction, but when they first came in they made this a ghost town.”

Maier and Martin noted their attempts to access grants or relief assistance haven’t solved any issues either. Representatives at the US Small Business Administration (SBA) claimed “no knowledge” of programs the businesses could access. Maier reached out to congressmen, senators, Governor Evers and Coulee Cap. “I got nowhere.”

The construction is expected to finish in the first half of October, a deadline Mike Novey, DAAR Engineer and Project Manager for the construction, described as “accurate.” Novey also gave an update: the barricades will be removed on Sept. 1 with “all types of traffic allowed” on the road.

“The rest of the work will be finished under flagging operations,” Novey said.

It’s progress: good news at the right time for a small town that needed it. 

Boondocks and People’s State Bank have organized a Back to School Bash for Aug. 31 in anticipation of the new school year and, that weekend, Wauzeka’s Labor Day celebration is slated. With an uptick in traffic and a few special events, Wauzeka’s businesses hope traffic returns and visitors will once again follow the highway to their sidewalks and through their doorways.

At time of press, the Crawford County Sheriff’s Department and Iverson’s Construction did not return requests for comment.

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