Northfield's last standing railroad depot, built in 1888, has apparently escaped demolition again and may wind up as part of a visitor's center and bus transit hub in the former railroad town.

A local preservation group, Save the Northfield Depot, has raised more than $50,000 of the $293,000 estimated cost to move and rehab the 124-year-old building half a block north onto city land downtown near Hwy. 3, said Rob Martin, co-chairman of the nonprofit group.

The City Council has agreed to donate the so-called Q block as a depot site if the group raises the necessary funds. The council was expected this week to approve a consultant's recommendation that the Q-block, which cost less and was rated better than two other sites, be chosen for the transit hub. The Q block sits beside Canadian Pacific railroad tracks a block west of Hwy. 3, between 2nd and 3rd streets.

The council's approval makes the site eligible for up to $277,200 in federal funds to clean up arsenic, mercury and other contaminants, said City Engineer Joe Stapf.

The depot owner, Canadian Pacific Railway, has offered to sell the building for a dollar to the nonprofit group if the depot is moved off railroad property. The group hopes to build a roofed, open-air platform connecting the restored depot to a new building modeled after a 1917 baggage storage structure that disappeared decades ago. Additional funds or grants would need to be secured to build the canopy platform and a replica of a baggage building.

Martin said the 1888 depot could become a visitor's center and the new baggage building could house the hub bus shelter. The hub, with parking and a bus drive-through, would sit by 2nd Street, which runs between the city's two colleges, Carleton and St. Olaf.

"That's what makes the project so compelling," Martin said. "It is not just saving the [depot] building, it is creating something the community could use that would benefit everybody."

The City Council agreed in June to donate the so-called Q block for the depot if the group can could raise in 18 months the funds needed to rehab and move it, said Mayor Mary Rossing. "The council is behind the project," she said. "We will see if the money can be raised."

She said the council last week reviewed the consultant's report that recommended the Q-block over two other possible bus hub candidates. A majority of council members appeared to support the recommendation, Rossing said.

But Rossing said it wasn't clear to her that the Q block is big enough for the depot, a bus shelter, a 30-space parking lot and a wide bus driveway.

"The site is tight, no question, but I believe it can be made to work," said Stapf, the city engineer. He said the site cleanup grant, from the Federal Transportation Authority, has been on hold for about five years and city site approval is needed this month or the grant will be lost. The grant is contingent upon the city contributing 20 percent -- up to $55,000 if the full $277,200 grant is needed -- of funds spent on site cleanup, he noted.

The city's Economic Development Authority has spent $14,000 for soil testing on the Q block, and the contaminants discovered will have to be removed before work begins, said Chris Heineman, city community development director.

Depot was saved once before

The community has had five depots since the first train arrived in 1865.

Chip DeMann, a group board member, said he already saved the 1888 depot from demolition after its former owner, the Milwaukee Road railway, went broke in 1983. He bought the depot for $10 at a bankruptcy hearing that year, supposedly to demolish it, but instead held onto it.

A few months after DeMann bought the depot, the railway's new owner, Soo Line, asked to buy the depot back because it housed needed track switching equipment, DeMann said. He said he deeded it back to the Soo Line, in return for its replacing the deteriorating roof. The depot was designated as a local heritage site in 1980.

By 2008, Canadian Pacific owned the property and was ready to demolish the vacant depot after getting complaints that it attracted vagrants and graffiti, city officials said.

After the city and history buffs objected to demolition, the railroad agreed to sell the depot for $1 if it was removed from its land.

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283