Ramsey County will go ahead with plans to raze a string of empty buildings along the bluffs in downtown St. Paul in hopes of spurring development for the prime riverfront property.
The County Board on Tuesday approved issuing $11.5 million in bonds to pay for demolishing the former county jail and Ramsey County Government Center-West Building.
The complex is made up of seven separate buildings, including five that had once been the headquarters of West Publishing Co.
“It might seem like sticker shock … but if we reach the optimum development there, we’re talking $7 million in property taxes,” said Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who represents downtown St. Paul.
Of that new tax revenue, about $2 million would go to the county and $5 million to the city, school district and other taxing entities.
Ramsey County has been shopping the 6-acre site for redevelopment since 2002. In 2007, Opus Northwest reached a $200 million deal for a project that included an office tower, hotel and luxury condos. But the Great Recession intruded on those plans, and they were scuttled.
Meanwhile, the county took advantage of the depressed real estate market and bought the former state Agriculture Department building across the river, along with the old Metro Square building downtown, and began moving employees there out of the cramped riverfront offices.
County officials last year began looking at the idea of demolishing the buildings, ranging from six to 10 stories tall and set like a fortress into the bluff. The buildings are sandwiched between Kellogg Boulevard, facing downtown, and Shepard Road running along the Mississippi River near the Wabasha Street Bridge.
With the economy recovering, Ortega said, the county’s new strategy is to offer a shovel-ready site to make it more attractive.
“It’s a good investment,” he said.
The extent of hazardous waste on the site — primarily asbestos — and the unknown cost of removing it, has been one risk factor scaring off potential investors. The county’s action removes that impediment, said Commissioner Jim McDonough, the board chairman.
Efforts to redevelop the property have had many stops and starts through the years, but being able to offer a site ready for rebuilding will be an advantage both for the county and potential buyers, he said.
“This sets the stage,” McDonough said. “It signals to the development community that we’re ready.”
The 6-0 board vote (Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt was ill) lets Ramsey County award contracts for hazardous materials abatement, demolition and salvage and bluff stabilization.
The work is scheduled to begin next summer, with completion by April 2016.
The buildings have stood vacant since August 2013, when the last county employees moved to other sites.
The buildings have been off the property tax rolls since 1992, when West Publishing, a 120-year-old company that had been St. Paul’s second-largest employer, pulled up stakes and moved its headquarters and 2,100 employees to Eagan, becoming part of Thomson Reuters Corp.
West Publishing gave its buildings to the county, which used them for offices. The county jail was built in 1979, but was closed in 2003 after becoming overcrowded.
The site is one of several cited for development potential by Mayor Chris Coleman in a report outlining a vision for downtown St. Paul’s future.