STERLING - This Rice County community of about 2,300 residents is preparing for growth.

By mid to late 2018, a new K-96 bypass is scheduled to be completed and will carry traffic from Nickerson into Rice County and around Sterling. Currently, K-96 goes through downtown Sterling. The Sterling interchange for the new K-96 will be about a quarter-mile north of the city.

Sterling's strategy, said City Manager Taggart Wall, is:

"Let's invest in our downtown infrastructure in advance of that project to make it business-friendly and accessible to customers. We want the downtown to be the best place it can be to do business."

Current improvements include street and intersection work downtown. The overall downtown improment project investment, including curb and gutter and handicap ramps, will amount to about $680,000, Wall said. 

In 2015, Sterling annexed about 35 acres for envisioned housing development on the east side. A group of private stakeholders is involved, Wall said.

More annexation likely will occur this year, stretching the city's north boundary.

"We know that there's going to be some development up north," Wall said. The proximity to the interchange will attract commercial growth. "There are things in the pipeline that we'll see before long," he said.

"What we're trying to do is find that balance," Wall said, between future growth and Sterling's downtown area.

Rice County Economic Development Director Jill Nichols praised leadership in the various sectors of Sterling, including government, education, business and the arts.

"They're ahead of the game," she said, and are being "proactive."

"The goal is to make downtown Sterling a "destination," Nichols said, bringing in people off the new K-96 bypass.

Local events and festivals, as well as retail shops, will help be a magnet, according to Wall and Nichols.