STILLWATER, Minn. - Used to be that all you could hear on a busy day in downtown Stillwater were trucks and cars. Nowadays, it's drilling and hammering.
On a recent weekday morning, construction crews were building two hotels, several restaurants and a distillery - all on Main Street. Among the workers was Noel Molloy, who was ripping apart the former Pub 112 at 112 N. Main St. and creating a pearl - Pearl & the Thief, that is. That's the new restaurant from the team behind LoLo American Kitchen + Bar; it will feature Southern fare such as crawfish bisque, chicken-fried ribs, catfish and grits, chicken and waffles, and an oyster bar.
"We've got restaurants shutting down, and new ones coming into play, so it's getting competitive around here," said Molloy, an Irishman who moved to Stillwater from Chicago a year ago. "People expect better things now. ... They don't want just crappy bar food; they want good stuff. It's great for the area."
When the two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge closed to traffic this past Aug. 2, the same day a new St. Croix River bridge opened in Oak Park Heights, about 17,000 vehicles a day were coming through downtown. Traffic jams when the bridge lifted to let boats pass underneath - as often as 22 times a summer weekend day - could stretch for blocks down Chestnut and Main streets.
The closing of the bridge has helped spark a rebirth of downtown, said Joe Ehlenz, who owns LoLo at 233 S. Main.
"It's a heckuva lot easier to park, there's less traffic, and it's easier to walk around," he said. "I think the locals are going to be more attracted to coming downtown."
A wave of young investors, hoteliers and restaurateurs are "putting money into these older buildings and trying to re-beautify an already beautiful area," he said. "If anything else closes, we know we're going to get somebody young and aspiring who wants to come and be a part of it."
LoLo is leading the charge. The restaurant, which also has locations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and in Hudson, Wisconsin, recently expanded and added a bar, prep kitchen and office area.
Pearl & the Thief should open by May 1, Ehlenz said, and it will be followed this fall by a yet-to-be-named distillery three doors north of LoLo in the former Gaalaas Jewelers space. "We'll have handcrafted vodkas, gins, really good whiskey," said Ehlenz, who was born and raised in Stillwater. "They'll be made the way God intended."
Two new boutique hotels - Lora on the south end of Main Street, in the former Joseph Wolf Brewery, and the Crosby, on North Main Street - are set to open this year. Both hotels will also feature restaurants.
"Aside from hearing the need for a public pool, I hear more about hotels since I've been on the council than really anything else," Mayor Ted Kozlowski said during a recent tour of construction sites on Main Street. "There are a lot of people who want to come and enjoy Stillwater. ... There are plenty of weekends when we fill up all our hotels downtown. There's definitely a need for it."
At 232 N. Main, crews are building the Crosby, a 64-room luxury hotel, and a restaurant and cafe. The $16 million project is being developed by the After Midnight Group, the developers of the Western-themed Cowboy Jack's bar-restaurants and Minneapolis music venue the Cabooze; the group also developed the University of Minnesota DoubleTree by Hilton and University Inn.
Lora Hotel, a 40-room hotel, is part of a $12.5 million project that includes a restaurant, retail space and coffee shop/juice bar. It is being developed by Elevage Development Group, led by Corey Burstad of Blaine, and should open in April.
"It's just stunning," Kozlowski said. "Look at how gorgeous the outside of this building looks. It pops. It's such an anchor for our town. I never realized how beautiful this building was. What they've done to preserve this, and the amount of money and effort it took to keep this the way it was - it was incredible. I know very few developers who would have gone through the pains of a project like this."
On the restaurant front, Brine's Restaurant & Bar, which was closed when manager Gerry Brine retired last month, is expected to reopen soon as a bar and restaurant. Brick & Bourbon, a craft bar and eatery, has opened in the former Green Room space at 215 S. Main Street. Rafters, inside downtown Stillwater's River Exchange building, has closed, and a new restaurant called Portside replaced it; chef Shawn Smalley, formerly of Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque in Stillwater, is in charge of the kitchen. Ziggy's, a food-truck restaurant with a bar, opened in the former Dairy Queen space and features live music several nights a week. The Tilted Tiki - with its palm trees, thatched decor and all - opened in the Grand Garage building at 324 S. Main St. in late 2016.
"Change is good," said Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. "Downtown, post-bridge, is absolutely fabulous. It's a real hometown feeling. You can jaywalk. I've been known to do that a few times. You wouldn't have put your toe out there before. It was very scary. Now, you can walk on Main Street with a cup of coffee and not have to worry about getting killed, basically."
One sign that things are going in the right direction: Locals are starting to come downtown again, Anthony said.
"We're seeing a lot more of that, especially going to the restaurants," she said. "It's just lovely and it's pleasant, and retailers are enjoying it."
Ice Castles, built just north of the Lift Bridge, helped spur winter tourism again this year, she said. The attraction was slated to close Saturday, March 3.
Mayor Kozlowski experienced the crowds firsthand on a winter weekday night when he and his wife tried to take their two daughters out to dinner.
"The (Mad) Capper was packed," he said. "Whitey's was packed. Nacho Mama's was packed. We couldn't sit down anywhere. At 8 o'clock on a Tuesday. There were people everywhere walking around. That was not something we saw on a Tuesday in January in years past."
The true post-bridge test will be this spring and summer once the "events and the fairs and the festivals and all the things that are really fun" start up again, he said.
"When the visitors start coming back, that's when it's really going to sink in for me," he said. "I honestly don't know how much the bridge was a catalyst for that. I don't think there was all of this waiting, 'Oh, I'm going to build a new hotel in Stillwater, but I'm going to wait for the bridge to get down.' I think Stillwater over the last few years has done a really good job of being a more compelling place to be."
The town has gotten a lot of press with the construction of the new bridge, Hockey Day Minnesota in 2017, Ice Castles and "bringing Lumberjack Days back," he said. "We've never been more visible to the rest of the metro than we have been over the last few years. The bridge was part of it, certainly, but I think it was lot of different things that were going on."
Another sign of success: Smaller retail businesses are opening on side streets and in other parts of downtown, Kozlowski said. "We're seeing Main Street creep up to Second and to Third, and we haven't had that for a long time," he said. "To me, it's a good sign."
Alex Pantic, owner of Domacin Wine Bar and Restaurant, said it's an exciting time to be in Stillwater.
"It starts with the leadership," he said. "Like anything else, you've got to have a strategy and the idea. We've been blessed to have a river. We've been blessed to have this downtown, and this great community to support it."
Matthew Stepaniak is the general manager of 210 Laurel, a luxury rental property near downtown. He said the town is booming as a result of the closure of the Lift Bridge.
Before bridge closure, the majority of vehicles coming into Stillwater were using the town as a "commuting thoroughfare," he said. "Now, almost every car that is coming into Stillwater is prequalified - they are coming to shop, eat and stay overnight. Stillwater is the place to be and to come visit.
"We couldn't be happier with Stillwater right now and the future that is coming."
Advice: Bring your 'A' game
LoLo owner Ehlenz said downtown has been hopping this winter.
"There's a tremendous amount of traffic at almost all times, especially on the weekends," he said. "If anybody has a really good platform for food and drinks, then you can make it, and you can do really well down here. But the moment we don't offer good food, good drink, good service, hospitality, then those places are going to be the ones that are left behind."
Competition is good for everybody, said Kevin Dunn, the owner of Whitey's Bar.
"It brings more people to town, and everybody gets their share if you do a good job. That's how I see it," he said.
Sam Leon, former owner of Pub 112, still owns the building at 112 N. Main and was helping build Pearl & the Thief last week. "It's getting competitive down here, so people have to bring their 'A' game," he said. "You can't just sell burgers. You've got to step it up."
Realtor Richard McDonough opened his own firm, RM Realty LLC, and moved his office downtown in January. He said it's time for the town to embrace tourism and "enjoy downtown for the asset that it is."
"It's amazing," said McDonough, a fourth-generation Stillwater resident. "Growing up here, I thought I'd be selling to my friends that I grew up with and who I knew. But today, it's people moving into the area, because the people who live here don't move out."