Wild warm to idea of practice site near the X

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2012 - 12:41 AM

A plan to develop the land in downtown St. Paul might be presented to the 2013 Legislature.

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Xcel Energy Center.

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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A 290-spot surface parking lot sits between the Minnesota Wild and the NHL-quality sheet of ice the team covets as a practice facility.

The land sits on St. Paul's high-traffic seven corners between the Xcel Energy Center and a parking ramp. Target once eyed the 2.38-acre plot for a store, but that fizzled along with other ideas over the years. Development discussions are speeding up again, however, with the city and the Wild hoping to assemble a proposal to pitch to the 2013 Legislature.

No firm plan has been drafted, but the Wild has wanted a practice facility since the team was founded here in 2000. The Wild practices off-site at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, making the team the exception among pro hockey teams. On the rare occasions when Xcel isn't used for a tournament or a concert, the Wild can practice there.

Any new development, however, would be bigger than the Wild.

Current discussions center on what would be added. The expectation is a mixed use, although it's unknown what that would include.

"We've been talking to the mayor's office about how this fits in with their bigger vision," said Bill Huepenbecker, senior director of planning and external affairs for the St. Paul Arena Co. The idea is to "leverage the entertainment district," he said.

City Council President Kathy Lantry said she's "pro pond," using the nickname for the plot, and talked about how children would be excited to skate across NHL ice. She envisioned a hockey-centric development.

Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the area, said the spot is the gateway to downtown and to the home of the Wild. "It's the last part of downtown that we have a gap. That gap needs to be filled," he said.

The spot is ripe for development. It's close to the Xcel, the St. Paul RiverCentre, hotels, bars and restaurants. The city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority owns the land, which is assessed at $4.1 million. The site also already has plenty of parking -- something that can be an issue for urban developments.

City leaders have eyed the site for years.

Cecile Bedor, planning and economic development director, said the city had a mixed-use development plan ready in 2008 but then the credit markets collapsed. "We're not out marketing that piece of property," she said, but the goal is to put something together that would throw off enough revenue to cover debt payments. "It's on the list of things we're working on."

The project has been on the back burner for the past couple of years as the city sought $27 million for a new regional baseball park in Lowertown for the St. Paul Saints. Bedor said the city potentially would seek bonding money for the hockey practice facility project, but she added, "all of these conversations are just starting."

Wild owner Craig Leipold made it clear last month that he's eager. He brought up the facility at a news conference when he announced the blockbuster signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

Huepenbecker said the hope is the ice arena would have seating for 3,000 to 5,000 spectators so it could be used for other events and as a unique site for lessons, clinics and community ice time. Also, the extra space could be marketed with the RiverCentre for conventions and could be physically connected to that facility.

In the months before the 2013 session, talks about the right mix for the site as well as funding are expected to continue behind the scenes.

Thune said he envisions dining areas near the ice so parents can watch their kids. He also expects an outside developer, a major commitment from the Wild and some sort of retail, possibly a large sporting goods store such as Scheels.

"A lot of it is going to hinge on what we can put in it, and I'm not interested in a fitness center," he added.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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