Ramsey County Board Chairman Rafael Ortega recalls a time when the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site in Arden Hills — TCAAP for short — wasn’t at the top of the county’s to-do list.

“When I first came to office, [former U.S. Rep.] Bruce Vento went door-knocking with me,” Ortega said last week. “We were lobbying to rebuild the Ford bridge. Vento said, ‘I’ll get money for the Ford bridge, but you promise to do something about TCAAP.’ I just smiled and nodded. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Thanks to the Minnesota Vikings’ losing campaign to build its new stadium there, everyone knows TCAAP now.

The county now has set its sights on making the 427-acre tract as attractive to developers as possible. The first step is underway: clearing the site of 40 factory, warehouse and office buildings and then cleaning 30 acres of polluted soil.

After decades of ownership by the federal government, Ramsey County purchased the state’s largest Superfund site in April for $28.5 million, which includes the cost of cleaning the solvent-heavy soil.

Only seven weeks after demolition began, about 10 buildings have fallen to wrecking balls and excavator claws. Trucks daily carry thousands of pounds of debris from the site to an industrial landfill in Rosemount.

The sprawling former ammunition complex, overgrown with weeds and dotted with rusting signs, still doesn’t look like much to the untutored eye. But in the coming months it will be a veritable treasure trove of recyclable materials.

Crumpled steel girders, bails of rebar, mounds of misshapen concrete chunks, stacks of 2x12s and thick Douglas fir timbers: all are being sorted into growing piles on-site for re-use.

Not to mention about six miles of railroad tracks that will be rerolled and used again for trains, tons of sheet iron being readied for the shredder and miles of asphalt roads that eventually will be crushed into road base.

“It’s the biggest job that we’ve had since I’ve been at Bolander,” said Mark Ryan, president and co-owner of Carl Bolander & Sons.

The St. Paul-based company has a $24.5 million contract with Ramsey County to demolish the structures, remove below-ground utilities and clean all soil to residential standards (the Army already had cleaned most of the property for industrial uses).

Bolander expects to collect $7.3 million for the recyclables, a sum that represents a savings for taxpayers since it was credited to the county in drawing up the contract.

Andy Ristrom, the demolition project manager, said that anywhere from 75 to 95 percent of materials from the site will be recycled or re-used. That includes an estimated 10,000-plus tons of steel and more than 100,000 cubic yards of concrete.

“The buildings are highly recyclable and we are using maximum efforts to recycle as much material as possible,” said Ristrom, who added that Bolander was the first construction company in the Twin Cities to recycle concrete into gravel in 1974.

County leaders, in turn, are betting that once the property is cleared and cleaned, developers will come knocking and the county will recoup its investment in the property.

Deputy County Manager Heather Worthington said that county and Arden Hills officials have met with several large local developers and brokers to gauge their interest.

Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman, who represents Arden Hills, dubbed TCAAP “a template” for future county projects.

“By smartly recycling, we can find ways for having the existing property they’re redeveloping start to pay for itself … and complicated situations don’t have to scare us,” Huffman said.

On Tuesday, a group of county and company officials led a tour through Building 101, one of three immense factories used to manufacture small-arms ammo during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

The interior was stripped clean of all equipment and the asbestos-laden windows were gone, and moss was stitching together a natural carpet on patches of the concrete floor.

The only hints of the factory’s dramatic past were faded wall signs such as TRACER WING/NO MATCHES/NO LIGHTERS, and a curious one in the former cafeteria area: TILTING OF CHAIRS FORBIDDEN.

So far, about 10 buildings either have come down or are in the process of being removed. They include a fire station, a seven-story power plant and Building 102, one of the large factories.

One structure, Building 502, is loaded with PCBs and asbestos — as well as valuable timbers — and may take until the end of the year to remove.

Some pollution remediation is underway, but most of the hard work of digging out and replacing contaminated soil will be done next year. Ortega said officials are confident they know what they will be dealing with: lead, PCBs, assorted solvents and petroleum. “There are no surprises,” he said.

In a unique joint powers agreement with the county, Arden Hills has hired a consultant to update its master plan to guide land use and develop design guidelines for the site. The study is expected to be done next year.

“We’re a fully developed county and we’ve got to increase our tax base,” Ortega said. “This will create jobs and clean up polluted land. So it’s pretty important to the county.”

He looked out over the fields of weeds and rust. “Once everything is gone, you will see what a beautiful piece of property this is,” he said.