The city of St. Paul may buy and develop a former golf course on the East Side, after discovering soil contamination on the 110-acre property that could scare away private developers.

The Port Authority Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved the creation of an Industrial Development District at the former Hillcrest Golf Club site, allowing the port to have a hand in its future development.

The authority estimates that it could cost $2.5 million to clean up the mercury pollution at Hillcrest, which is one of the city's largest undeveloped tracts.

"If we could figure out a way to buy it, we definitely would," Port Authority President Lee Krueger said in an interview. "It's one step at a time."

Monte Hilleman, the Port Authority's senior vice president of real estate development, told the board that the public sector needs to play a role in developing Hillcrest, and said the port is "very well-positioned" to deal with the site's challenges and make way for mixed-use development there.

State statute allows port authorities to create Industrial Development Districts to ensure development of "marginal" properties. In St. Paul, the port has created these districts on the properties that became Allianz Field, Energy Park Business Center, the Phalen Corridor and other sites.

Hillcrest opened as a municipal golf course in 1921 and in 1945 became a private club for Jewish members, who were barred from other clubs. Membership restrictions were lifted in the 1970s.

Steamfitters Pipefitters Local 455 bought Hillcrest in 2011 for about $4 million, according to Ramsey County property tax records, and closed the golf club in 2017. The port has been working with the union in recent months to assess the condition of the property, Hilleman said.

Environmental consulting and testing firm Braun Intertec conducted investigations at the site, which according to a board memorandum found "a significant amount of mercury soil contamination" from a fungicide as well as "petroleum releases associated with maintenance and operations on the site."

"Comparatively, for a site of this size, it could've been a lot worse," Hilleman said.

Krueger emphasized that although the Port Authority has done preliminary studies on contamination at Hillcrest, the agency has not committed any money to cleaning it up.

Still, commissioners applauded the Port Authority's decision to play a role at the site as they sat around a conference table on Tuesday afternoon, munching on popcorn in bright blue bowls. Board Chairman John Bennett said he initially questioned the port's involvement, but noted that the money and time needed to clean up the contamination would be a barrier for private developers.

Steamfitters Pipefitters Business Manager Tony Poole said in an e-mail that he has had "a variety of conversations with the Port Authority," and that the Industrial Development District "will be great for the East Side of St. Paul."

If the Port Authority buys Hillcrest, it will become tax-exempt until it's developed with homes and businesses. The port estimates the site could produce $250 million worth of development and generate $5 million a year in property tax revenue.

Though Tuesday's board meeting was intended to serve as a public hearing on the Industrial Development District, no one came to speak. Members of the public will have more opportunities to weigh in as plans for site move forward, Krueger said.