An idea to build a community center for the arts in Hastings has budded into a conversation about drawing people to the area.

The Hastings Prescott Area Arts Council (HPAAC) signed a contract with the nation's largest nonprofit developer for the arts, Artspace, and the two are formulating a plan for creating new spaces for the arts — something that can foster community growth.

"We have been growing and thinking about how we can improve our communities," HPAAC board member Charlotte Vick said. "It's an economic driver. It seriously is."

The council is interested in turning the vacant, city-owned H.D. Hudson Sprayers building into a "river center," combining art, nature, history and recreation.

It would feature a visitor and education center focused on wildlife, tow boats and fishing; rental space for studios or artist residences; a community conference space; a restaurant; a community theater; an art gallery; a boutique hotel; craft shops; a kayak, canoe or bike rental store; an ice cream shop, and an outpost for the national parks. The center also would connect the downtown district with river trails.

Board members say the project would require getting local businesses and groups involved, and "something will emerge that we probably haven't seen yet," said HPAAC board Chairman Richard Graham. "I would doubt very much that it would be all an arts building."

No plans are solid yet, and the group is holding a community meeting to gather public ideas at 7 p.m. June 5. The forum will be held at the Hastings City Hall council chambers.

Artspace will visit Hastings June 4 and June 5 to tour possible sites for the project.

"It's more than the building," Graham said. "It's a community conversation and the beginning of thinking about the arts. I do think it potentially is a very pivotal two days in the evolution of Hastings from the past into the future."

Artspace will tour two other sites as well — the vacant Guardian Angels Community Center and another piece of vacant land. But HPAAC and members of the arts community have their hopes set on the Hudson building, Vick said.

"I haven't met a single artist yet that hasn't said to me, 'Oh, my gosh, that would just make the perfect art space!' " said Mecca Manz, HPAAC director of visual arts.

The community is excited about fostering art in Hastings, including theater arts, music and writing, Manz said. "I am most excited about the possibility that Hastings could become known for their arts and be a draw for artists. Really active and viable arts completely changes the feel of a community."

The last riverfront property

The historic 100,000-square-foot H.D. Hudson Sprayers building, a former commercial warehouse, was built in 1913. The city acquired it in 2010 for redevelopment.

Two other developers have submitted concept plans to the city for use of the building — Sherman Associates is interested in developing a hotel with a restaurant and banquet, and the Beard Group proposed an apartment building.

The city's Hudson Reuse Plan indicates that a hotel would meet the vision, but exclusively residential use does not. The vision calls for public accessibility of the space.

"We have one shot to develop this property," Commissioner Anthony Alongi said at a March meeting of the Hastings Economic Development and Redevelopment Authority [HEDRA], according to a city document. Alongi is also an HPAAC board member.

"Essentially, I think what we're looking for is something that's going to provide an impact and an excuse for people to turn off into downtown when they cross the [Hwy.] 61 bridge over the river," said John Hinzman, Hastings' community development director.

A portion of the building is just 40 feet from the river, grandfathered in Minnesota Department of Natural Resources rules restricting development close to the river.

"You would not be able to build that close today," Hinzman said. "So we think that's a unique opportunity for reuse. You have a building with real close proximity to the Mississippi River, some great views of the river valley and potential for public use."

If the plan for the building doesn't work out, Manz said, at least the community has a chance to discuss improving Hastings.

"We are incredibly happy that this opportunity allows us to broaden the discussion and the conversation about how significant properties are used in our community for the betterment of the whole," Manz said.