Arden Hills ammo plant gets another chance for development

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2012 - 10:46 PM
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The Gate 4 entrance to the site of the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Ramsey County officials believe the time is finally right to buy, clean up and develop one of the metro area's largest remaining parcels of undeveloped land.

And they may have the Minnesota Vikings to thank for it.

The County Board approved a $28.5 million deal Tuesday to buy the 430-acre Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) site from the federal government and finish cleaning the last 30 acres of solvent-heavy soil -- a task that will account for $22.6 million of the county's cost.

The TCAAP site, Minnesota's biggest Superfund site and the county's largest undeveloped tract, has seen development dreams raised and dashed before.

Ryan Companies backed out of a massive redevelopment in 2009, just as the economy was bottoming out.

The Vikings last year badly wanted to build a stadium there. But when funding stalled, the team won state approval for a public-private partnership to rebuild in downtown Minneapolis.

Officials said that the scrutiny and spotlight drawn to the TCAAP site by the Vikings' interest was so great that they couldn't afford to lose it.

They also said they believe that by the time the site is cleared and cleaned, the market will again be ready for ambitous development. The county is doing a study now to see how quickly the market can absorb the site.

"We felt like the time and effort we invested [in the stadium campaign] should not go to waste," said Heather Worthington, the county's deputy manager. "This is a momentum project."

Arden Hills City Administrator Patrick Klaers agreed.

"There was a silver lining in all the work that went into the stadium proposal," he said. "There's more of a public awareness of all the opportunities with the TCAAP site. As the economy improves, we hope development will come and see the benefits of the site."

Ramsey County's goal now, Worthington said, is "high-quality land uses that create a lot of jobs."

The board voted 5-2 to proceed despite the fact that no developers are lined up and there apparently are no solid prospects yet. At the same time, it agreed to a joint powers agreement with Arden Hills, thought to be the first city-county partnership of its kind in Minnesota, to guide development at the site.

The dissenters, Commissioners Victoria Reinhardt and Janice Rettman, said the deal leaves Ramsey County taxpayers too exposed and lessens the chances of further assistance from the state and federal governments.

"The entire budget for this, $28 million, is all county and that is different from any other joint powers agreement that I'm aware of. ... It's too much of a risk and responsibility falling on the county's shoulders," Reinhardt said.

The feds polluted the site, Rettman said, and they should clean it up. "Really? Is that our job as a county?" she said.

With the sale deadline that the government set fast approaching, however, board Chair Rafael Ortega said the county shouldn't wait for additional help with remediation.

The plan is to clear the site of its remaining factory buildings and solicit proposals from developers for mixed-use projects including housing, business and light industry.

The county would recoup its investment from sale of the property.

Worthington said that the county also is asking the Minnesota Department of Transportation to join in a request for $35 million in state funding to improve nearby stretches of Interstate 35W, Hwy. 10 and County Road 96 -- a point of contention during negotiations around a stadium.

'Unique piece of property'

The Arden Hills City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve the joint powers agreement. It creates an agency with two Ramsey County Board members, two Arden Hills City Council members and a non-elected Arden Hills resident chosen by the City Council.

"It is a unique piece of property and ... that's why we think this unique relationship with the county is the best way to approach it," Klaers said.

The TCAAP site is a California-shaped portion of a 2,400-acre Arden Hills site owned for decades by the federal government. The U.S. Army uses most of the larger site for training. A little more than 100 acres adjoining the TCAAP site is a wildlife preserve and corridor, home to deer, turtles and raptors.

Under terms of the deal, the county will pay the federal government $4.9 million for the property and agree to spend $22.6 million to clean up remaining pollution. A congressional committee is expected to approve the sale in the next few weeks.

The county will finance the deal with $21.4 million in bonding, a $6 million transfer from its solid waste fund and $2 million in contingency funds.

The County Board agreed in March to award the contract to finish cleaning the site to industrial standards to St. Paul-based Carl Bolander & Sons. For an additional $1.9 million, Bolander will clean the site to housing standards.

Commissioner Tony Bennett, who represents the Arden Hills area and led the county's drive last year to build a Vikings stadium at the site, enthusiastically supported the project. He said Tuesday that it was about creating jobs and putting a large parcel that hasn't paid taxes for decades back on the tax rolls.

"I think this is going to be a project that we'll all be proud of," he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035

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