In southeastern Minnesota, there are 33 road construction projects slated to begin this year. The largest of these is the Highway 52 expansion. The Minnesota Department of Transportation officials are in the process of buying property from business and homeowners along Highway 52 in Rochester. Reconstructing the four-lane highway has been on the books for a decade. So moving should come as no surprise to property owners. But that doesn't make the process any easier.
Part of Rochester looks like a ghost town. Boarded up buildings line Highway 52. Rochester, one of Minnesota's strongest economic centers, is tearing down the businesses to expand the road.
The $215 million project includes widening the freeway to six lanes, reconstructing four interchanges and building or rebuilding 26 bridges. Minnesota Department of Transportation authorities say it's a huge project. Construction will take five years.
Hundreds of people came from all over the county to bid on bed linens, microwaves, TVs, and framed seascapes when MnDOT officials held an auction to sell off items from the vacant hotels and apartment buildings along 52. The items filled the horse barn at the Olmsted County fairgrounds.
Gene Comero bid on some file cabinets. He lives in Rochester and says he supports the highway reconstruction project. "I think its necessary. It's needed for this town to grow. In rush hour,it is crowded," he says.
Most people say certain interchanges on 52 are dangerous, but traffic is bearable.
Star Recore was a housekeeper at the Deluxe Hotel. It's shut down now, and Recore's bounced from one job to another in the last few months. She says a lot of people have suffered already because of the project.
"I think it's very unnecessary for them to expand the highway. There's a lot of motels and businesses that have to go down. A lot of businesses lost a lot of money. Even though the state paid for the businesses, they could have made a lot more money being open," Recore says.
MnDOT officials say they have offered property owners fair market value. Mark Trogstad-Isaacson, the project engineer, says the majority of the people he's dealt with are pleased with the offer. "Most people along the corridor can hardly wait for us to come because they've been sitting in limbo for seven to ten years from when we had the first public hearing. It's been a waiting game. So they're more than excited for us to come because they know it will be an end to their wait," according to Trogstad-Isaacson.
So far the state has aquired about 80 pieces of property and has a dozen to go. Some are reluctant to move.
One of the few businesses that remains open is the restaurant Fiesta Mexicana, owned by Jorge Solis. He says his customers aren't even sure the business is still open. Neighboring businesses are already empty and boarded up.
Solis says MnDOT is not offering him a fair price. When he bought the property eight years ago, he knew about the expansion project. But he thought he'd get more for his property and he'd have better luck finding a new location.
"A lot of my customers say, 'Where you going to move? Are you keeping it a secret?' I say 'no.' I say I feel they're not treating me fair," he says.
That's when Solis hired a lawyer. Eight years ago he paid $235,000 for his business. At first MnDOT officials offered him just $10,000 more than that to buy him out. MnDOT's now offering Solis $300,000 for his restaurant. Solis still isn't happy. He says, it'll cost him more than twice that to buy another restaurant.
MnDOT officials have the right to condemn the building under eminent domain laws. Officials have told Jorge Solis he has until the end of June to move out.
Transportation officials say the buildings will be demolished by July 4 to begin construction by fall.