Even with the blessing of city and county officials, Newport's new $6.2 million transit center hasn't passed the smell test with some people. Literally.
The issue was raised last month by a top Washington County official, who abruptly withdrew her support for a long-planned transit station because, among other reasons, she caught a whiff of a fetid smell hanging around the site.
The finger pointing began shortly thereafter, with many residents blaming the stink on the usual suspects, including an oil refinery, a wastewater lift station, a rendering plant and a waste-to-energy facility that processes nearly 400,000 tons of garbage a year.
A recent news story about the smell prompted Mayor Tim Geraghty to issue a statement calling it "disconcerting."
"It's important to focus on the facts and the data, considering the many property owners who have invested in this area and made it home," he said "There are dramatic differences between crossing the Wakota Bridge, standing downwind of the waste water lift station located in South St. Paul or walking across the parking lot of the forthcoming Red Rock Transit Station."
The $6.2 million transit center and park-and-ride project is part of a larger effort to transform the blighted commercial areas near the Wakota Bridge. In getting the project off the ground, however, officials say they have had to contend with the area's reputation as a smelly industrial hub, left over from the days when the local meatpacking industry was centered across the Mississippi River in South St. Paul. The last of the stockyards closed in 2008.
Newport officials remain hopeful they have weathered the storm.
"We've invested a lot of money, and so has the county, into this. Having these connotations tacked on for us is unfortunate," said Deb Hill, the city's administrator. She said she fears the concern about the smell could scare off businesses and developers and lower property values.
Lisa Weik, a Washington County board commissioner, unexpectedly voted against approving a $970,000 construction contract for the station, saying that after touring the site she didn't "think people riding the bus would pick that spot." The board eventually voted 3-1 in favor of the contract, with one member abstaining. The transit station, beset by delays, is scheduled to open next fall.
Weik said she "felt like that particular location really needed a lot more study."
"So if there's offensive odors in the area, it seems logical that should be taken into the consideration, and there should be steps taken to mitigate it," she said.
"I haven't really taken any formal steps with this, but could this be something the Legislature would address?" Weik asked. "In general, I don't necessarily favor regulating industry, but it seems that this could be detrimental to economic development."
Her sentiments were echoed by some residents.
"There will be some days when it's strong," particularly during the summer, said Tom Marcus, who runs a disc golf business nearby.
A recent study, commissioned by a consortium of companies in South St. Paul including Sanimax and Twin City Tanning, showed there were a total of 142 "odor complaints" between November 2012 and June 2013.
"The two locations registering the most odor complaints were the Wakota Bridge and the on ramp/off ramp area of Interstate 494 (Wakota Bridge) and Hardman Avenue," the study said.
The two cities have approached Metropolitan Council officials to discuss what steps the cities should take to prevent odors, Hill said. South St. Paul is also weighing an ordinance to limit activity that could spread odors.
"I don't consider it a huge issue," Hill said. "We don't deserve a reputation we don't have."