With Vikings stadium out, clock is ticking on Arden Hills land

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2012 - 6:28 AM

Ramsey County can still buy the former ammunition plant site for development, but first it needs a plan.

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Developers who had looked at the site’s 430 acres in the past were daunted by the costs of tearing down the property’s derelict buildings and cleaning up decades of contamination.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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With wild turkeys, derelict buildings and deserted roads continuing to dominate the polluted Arden Hills land where they had hoped to build a new Minnesota Vikings stadium, Ramsey County officials are searching for a new development dream.

Some want to buy the 430-acre Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) land, develop it for mixed residential-commercial use and add it to the tax rolls. Ramsey County commissioners plan to discuss their options at a June workshop.

"We are committed to moving forward, even if we have to do it ourselves," said County Board Chairman Rafael Ortega, who, along with County Commissioner Tony Bennett, led the county's failed flirtation with the Vikings, who recently won public funding to build a new stadium in Minneapolis.

The property, one of the largest undeveloped parcels in the Twin Cities, is a tangle of paradoxes. Its location off Interstate 35W in an inner-ring suburb is prime, with an abundance of picturesque views. It also is an environmental problem -- the state's largest Superfund site.

The county has a purchase agreement with the General Services Administration (GSA), a federal agency, to buy the land for $28.5 million, with $22.5 million of that credited for remediating the contamination. The county would get an additional 108 acres free for parkland.

The clock is ticking -- the agreement expires Oct. 1 and funding is a hurdle.

Ortega has said the county will look at a grant from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), but that $47.5 million pot of money is bound to be sought by many whose projects were left out of this year's bonding bill.

St. Paul, for example, plans to request $27 million from DEED for a new Saints baseball park. Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato plan to lean on the fund for civic center expansions totaling about $59.6 million. Each jurisdiction also has to pony up a matching amount equal to their grant request.

Bennett and Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt want the state to find funding, but the odds this year are slim. Gov. Mark Dayton's press secretary, Katharine Tinucci, said that although site cleanup is a priority for the governor, she doesn't foresee state funds being made available this year.

"The DEED money in the bonding bill seems to be the current most likely way of funding the project this year," Tinucci said.

The county could opt to walk away and return to the discussion later. Reinhardt doesn't want any county funds spent on the land, and said it's worth exploring state funding in the next session.

It's unclear how a delay might affect future negotiations with GSA, but Mike Fix of the U.S. Army and property manager for the site, said the land would go up for public auction if the county doesn't buy it. The government has previously sought to unload the land via auction, but no one was interested.

"It's been a difficult, long process," said Fran Holmes, an Arden Hills City Council member.

Arden Hills was on a development track with the property years ago, but that plan died when the developer pulled out in 2009 due to the cost of cleaning up contaminants and demolishing about 200 buildings. The groundwater contains solvents such as trichloroethylene, commonly used as an industrial solvent, and the soil is contaminated with heavy metals, including lead.

It wasn't long after that that the Vikings' itch for a new stadium seemed to make the land a remarkably good fit. Stadium construction could begin quickly and would eliminate the task of convincing a private developer to buy the whole parcel, which the federal government prefers.

With all the fans would come a need for parking. That would solve one of the biggest issues with the site: remediation. Much of the land is cleaned up to industrial standards (parking lots would be fine), but further remediation would be needed if homes are part of the picture.

"I did see them as the golden opportunity," Ortega said.

But hope remains. There are admirers of the site, but buyers are gun-shy.

"It's a great site," said Herb Tousley, director of the Shenehon Center for Real Estate at the University of St. Thomas. "The big thing is the cleanup and convincing the public that the cleanup is done ... so they won't have any misgivings about buying a lot, building a home and living there."

Though the county can buy the land, the city will decide how it can be used so commissioners expect to work closely with Arden Hills.

Nick Tamble, a City Council member, said he envisions an eco-friendly community with a large corporate anchor that looks toward the future.

"We have an opportunity to come up with something much more leading edge," he said.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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