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Popular Steele fishing spot may get a makeover

Beaver Lake, Owatonna, Steele County
This low tunnel–essentially a line-up of culverts–now connects the Beaver Lake beach, fishing pier, and boat launch with the parking lot and concession/restroom building and playground. Plans are to eventually put everything but the parking lot on the west side of County State Aid Highway 28. Staff photo by Joni Hubred
Joni Hubred, News Editor

Steele County officials agreed Tuesday on a plan to reconstruct a portion of County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 28 and, in the process, improve a popular boating and fishing spot.

Located in Berlin Township, the 17-acre Beaver Lake Park has a concession stand, playground, a sand volleyball court, and a small beach and fishing pier. A section of CSAH 28 runs through it; residents have raised safety concerns about pedestrian access from one side to the other.

Officials purchased land for the park in 1968 and 1972. The last substantial work happened in 1999, with a state grant funding a playground that is now showing signs of age and trails, as well as renovations to the beach. The pavement on the highway is also “at the end of its useful life,” according to a report prepared by consultants with Rochester-based WHKS. 

The improvement project started with two public meetings, as well as online comments collected over the past year. Based on that input, consultants and staff developed a “preferred alternative.”

“We had a fair amount people in public engagement,” project manager Brandon Theobold said during a county board work session. “We really got some clear direction from citizens.”

That included adding facilities, pedestrian improvements, and a trail along CSAH 28. People also wanted improvements to the boat launch, he said.

Alternatives presented during the second meeting included:

  • Keeping the road aligned as-is and building a new boat launch and bridge overpass to move lake access underneath the road and relocating the fishing pier south of the launch.
  • Purchasing land to move the road alignment slightly east, creating a new boat trailer parking area and relocating the boat launch farther south, as well as improving an existing pedestrian access under the road.
  • Purchasing land for a major realignment so that all facilities are west of the road, with the existing east-side lot used only for overflow parking

The last alternative, preferred by those who attended the second public meeting, would be phased, and allow for a beach expansion, additional trails, a new playground, a half-sized basketball court, a larger picnic area replacing the concession stand, and even pickleball courts.

“It really creates a whole park that’s not off by the road,” he said. “It creates a park that’s more of a regional destination.”

And while residents want improvements, they’re also worried about just that. One group said they didn’t want the park to turn out so nice that “everybody and his brother” would crowd the space some have enjoyed for decades.

“One of the comments from residents was ‘don’t make it too big,’” Theobold said.

To help allay those fears, he added, the number of parking spots for boat trailers would be limited. Once they’re filled, the lake would essentially be closed.

Adding more amenities will also increase the project costs, Theobold said. Estimated costs for the preferred alternative are $1.47 million for roadway improvements and $1.67 million for basic park improvements. Adding a large picnic pavilion with restrooms, new playground, game courts and a flexible field space, would run close to $3 million.

Commissioners all agreed with residents about the major road realignment. The pricier park improvements, they said, should come later, either from private contributions or grant funding.

Work on CSAH 28 will be covered by state aid funds available for designated roads, county engineer Greg Ilkka said.

The WHKS report also noted Local Road Improvement Program and State Park Road Account programs, as well as federal programs for nontraditional and rural road projects as possible funding sources.

The county could also apply for Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission Legacy Funds and several Department of Natural Resources grant programs to cover park improvements.

While the report laid out a timeline that would have construction beginning in spring 2024, Ilkka called that “optimistic” with reliance on grants.

“It may take several grant cycles to actually get funded,” he said.

County attorney Dan McIntosh suggested that a board resolution supporting a specific alternative would be helpful for grant applications. Commissioners passed one during their regular meeting to formalize their choice.

Consultants and staff will also use comments made to create a revised report for a future board meeting.

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