By next summer, the long-standing former West Publishing headquarters and the neighboring Ramsey County jail will finally be gone from St. Paul’s downtown river bluffs.
West’s massive vaults and 1970s-era paneling — and the jail’s dull orange carpeting and captivating cellblock views of the river — will be nothing but memories, as crews begin razing the buildings to make way for a hoped-for sale and new development.
But not all is lost.
In a ceremony Friday to mark the history of the buildings, Ramsey County officials gave onetime West executive John Nasseff the large wooden clock that once hung from the wall of his old office.
“It never moved fast enough,” Nasseff joked.
Nasseff, now white-haired and wearing a beret, started unloading boxcars at West on his birthday in 1946 and retired as an executive vice president exactly 50 years later.
“Before this building was built, there were shacks here,” he said of the site. “I hate to see it all go. But it’s progress.”
At least, that’s the idea.
Beginning in June, crews will begin clearing the buildings along the cliffs between the Wabasha Bridge and District Energy. It’s prime real estate and Ramsey County has budgeted more than $13 million to prepare the site as a cost-saving incentive to developers.
“We feel that St. Paul is on the verge of a renaissance,” said Rafael Ortega, a Ramsey County commissioner.
Said board Chairman Jim McDonough as he gazed out the windows of the former West cafeteria to the river valley below: “It’s all about that view right there.”
Thousands of workers and jail inmates have shared those views in the decades since the first building — West’s B building — went up in 1886. The site is actually seven connected buildings comprising more than 700,000 square feet of space, taking up nearly 4 acres along the river — property that has been off the county and city tax rolls for more than 20 years.
Friday’s event included a farewell tour of the properties. Vance and Fane Opperman, whose father Dwight was West’s longtime CEO, waxed nostalgic in their dad’s old office. Mom helped with the decorating, they said of the paneled suite. Vance was 9 when his father started at West as an editor in 1951 and remembers the clack of the Linotype machines.
“I thought this was really neat,” he said. “It was a culture that celebrated work with a sense of purpose.”
West moved its 2,100 employees to Eagan in 1991, and was later acquired by Thomson Reuters. Ramsey County bought the riverfront property that same year, using it as a government center until August 2013. The former Ramsey County Adult Detention Center closed in 2003 when a new jail opened northeast of downtown.
Sheriff Matt Bostrom, who was elected after the county vacated the riverfront jail, recalled stories of inmates taking advantage of their large cell windows to, um, show off for employees at the West Building and pedestrians on the nearby Wabasha Bridge.
“We’ve learned some things” about jail design, Bostrom joked, adding that the new jail has cell windows near the ceiling to keep the inmates out of view.
According to the county, analysts say the site can accommodate more than $150 million in private development, which would increase overall property tax revenue by about $7 million a year. About $1.9 million of that would go to Ramsey County.
Louis Jambois, president of the St. Paul Port Authority, said the demolition work is already helping attract interest in the site by “five or six” developers.
“This project is a great opportunity to continue to reconnect the St. Paul central business district with the river,” Jambois said, pointing to recent and ongoing projects, including Custom House, Union Depot and the Pioneer Endicott building. “And there’s more to come. Excitement and investment begets more excitement and investment.”