It’s the beginning of the end of an era.

As long as Apple Valley has existed — and even before, when it was tiny Lebanon Township — it’s been dotted with gravel mines.

The pits have gradually been filled in and built up, making room for everything from big-box stores to a high school and serving as the base for a city that’s come to boast more than 50,000 residents.

Now, Apple Valley’s last gravel pit is being developed.

Over the past two years, the 400-acre Fischer Sand and Aggregate site has sprouted new single-family homes. Eventually, the site will house a “mixed business campus” — a spot for retail or light manufacturing.

In 2008, as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process, officials focused on opportunities for new jobs. Unlike neighboring Burnsville and Eagan, Apple Valley has been a hub for housing, education and recreation, but not employment.

“We have all these other things, but we’d really like to attract additional jobs,” said Community Development Director Bruce Nordquist. “We’re focused on something we think the community needs, and it needs a mixed-use area that isn’t just a great neighborhood and isn’t just a great retail shopping center.”

Located along the city’s southern border, the site in the past two years has become home to two residential developments with a total of 74 lots. The property owner has also prepared a 40-acre site for commercial use and is looking for a partner to develop it.

As mining and reclamation come to an end, about 300 additional acres will become available for development of the business campus.

The transition from active mining to development won’t happen overnight, Nordquist said. More subdivisions of single-family homes may pop up and some commercial development will arrive in the next two years, but the bulk of development will likely begin two to five years from now and continue as the market allows.

“When you’re talking about a couple hundred acres, that takes a little bit of time to develop,” he said. “And there is still a little bit more mining to occur, and the two can coexist.”

A community history of mining

Gravel mines — the legacy of ancient glaciers that created underground sand and gravel deposits — are a common sight in the Twin Cities’ southern suburbs. The land in and around Apple Valley was the southern terminus of glaciation in the area, leaving behind deposits running around 50 feet deep.

According to an Apple Valley history book prepared for the United States bicentennial in the 1970s, mining took hold in the 1920s with an operation that produced gravel for local building projects. Eventually, that mine was incorporated into the Fischer operation.

The Fischer mine has been operated by the same family — who first arrived in Lebanon Township in 1925 — for generations.

The company’s website tells a story of humble roots — the mine was initially a gravel pit on the family farm — that grew into a thriving business.

Before this most recent project began, Apple Valley’s last development of a former mine happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It became the 500,000-square foot Fischer Marketplace shopping center.

The Fischer Sand and Aggregate site is much bigger — and it’s the city’s last chance to build community out of a giant hole in the ground.

“We believe that this property is a large-acreage asset to do something special,” Nordquist said.