Judd Sather knew he had some mighty big shoes to fill when converting an old Stillwater factory into one of Minnesota's largest event venues.
"It was a bit of risk, that's for sure, a leap of faith," he said about buying and remodeling the former Connolly Shoe Co. building, a 14,000-square-foot behemoth, into JX Event Venue.
The building has strong historical significance. More than a century ago, as Stillwater's fabled lumber industry began to disappear and residents lost their jobs, 24 merchants decided to form the shoe company. They persuaded Thomas F. Connolly, manager of the shoe shop at the state prison, to take charge, according to Brent Peterson, head of the Washington County Historical Society.
Production began in 1906 and continued through the Great Depression and World War II with some notable big sales. In 1942, for example, Connolly Shoe made 85,000 pairs of brown oxfords for the U.S. Army.
In 1967, the factory closed because of rising labor costs and declining demand for leather shoes, putting 185 employees out of work. In ensuing years the hulking factory provided quarters for the Stillwater Public Library and a few other businesses, but then sat mostly dark.
Enter JX, which opened last summer after a year of construction. The venue, at 123 N. 2nd St., can host as many as 720 guests in a single event. Most people rent the space for weddings and fundraisers. The building has a full-service salon and photography studio; a "speakeasy" bar, Velveteen, will open in the building's basement in January.
JX, owned by Sather and two other investors he declined to name, isn't the only events venue in Stillwater. But it has found a place in the city's growing entertainment market.
"It's the niche that currently doesn't exist downtown. There wasn't anything of that size," said Bill Turnblad, the city's community development director.
Sather said that the new St. Croix River bridge at Oak Park Heights, scheduled to open in late 2017, figured into plans to risk investment in such a large events venue. The new bridge is expected to ease commuter traffic in Stillwater once the Lift Bridge, built in 1932, closes to vehicles.
"We just knew that Stillwater would become more desirable once that bridge was closed. There would be less congestion," Sather said. "If the north end of town starts to light up a little bit, with attractions and businesses ... it's really starting to stretch the town."
Positioning for the new bridge also led to separate proposals for two downtown hotels, Turnblad said. One will be built on the south end of Main Street, in the Joseph Wolf Brewery buildings, and the other is proposed for a site about a block from JX on North Main.
Turnblad said that JX has eased concerns about filling the city's downtown parking ramp across the street. Both the ramp and JX sit next to the lordly Lowell Inn, a landmark hotel and restaurant. "You slowly see that end of town changing," he said.
The rise of popularity of event spaces and the demise of the shoe factory show how customer interests may change but an old building can be adapted for a new use.
"It is now a modern building with a historic skin," Sather said. "It definitely has a gravity of history about it."