For years, E. 7th Street was St. Paul's own boulevard of broken dreams.
In fairly rapid succession, the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood suffered first the loss of a Whirlpool factory, then the closing of Hamm's/Stroh's brewery, followed by the shuttering in phases of a 3M plant, all located near the diagonal-running artery that connects one of the East Side's oldest communities directly to downtown St. Paul.
Not long after those hundreds of good-paying jobs vanished came the housing crisis and recession, and a once-thriving neighborhood descended into a defeating spiral of decay, witnessed by vacant lots, boarded-up storefronts and rising crime.
"Seventh Street used to be the happening place," said Deanna Foster, executive director of the Dayton's Bluff Community Council, one of several groups that have been pulling together in recent months to return Dayton's Bluff to its former vitality.
The goal now, local leaders say, is to make it St. Paul's next up-and-coming neighborhood, similar to the transformation being seen in Lowertown and along University Avenue with next year's completion of the Central Corridor light-rail line. And it's already starting to happen, Foster said.
"It's a new day on the East Side," she said. The loss of three such major businesses took an emotional as well as financial toll on the neighborhood, Foster said. And the despair showed.
"Two years ago, this was almost an abandoned street," Foster said, looking out her office window toward 7th, which had been marred by graffiti, trash-strewn lots and rusting lampposts. But last year, aided by a city grant, the council launched an initiative called Make It Happen, aimed at quality-of-life improvements like painting light poles, making the street more pedestrian-friendly, being more alert and responsive to crime and cleaning up vandalism damage and trash. It also promoted investment in rehabilitating existing buildings and businesses in the neighborhood.
That effort helped restore community pride, but it also gave momentum to more substantive changes. That wasn't always the case in a neighborhood that has changed culturally as well, from predominantly white to one of the city's most diverse.
"The difference now is there is a coming together, there is an exponential kind of energy that is taking place," Foster said. "There's a realization that we can't keep talking about 'some day.' It's today. This is it."
Energy and enthusiasm are one thing; putting dollars behind it is quite another. In recent months the city, local investors and budding entrepreneurs have been putting substantial money into a variety of projects in Dayton's Bluff.
Foster's workplace is just one example. The offices of the Dayton's Bluff Community Council, located in the historic Pabst Grocery building on Margaret Street just off 7th, is being remodeled into the East Side Enterprise Center with the aid of a $100,000 grant and a $150,000 loan from the city. The project is a joint effort with the Latino Economic Development Center which, like many business organizations tied to cultural communities, is banding together with more established groups to push the East Side's transformation, Foster said.
The project will include a community meeting space and an incubator for a half-dozen businesses.
The former 61-acre 3M campus was taken over by the St. Paul Port Authority, the city's development agency, and was renamed Beacon Bluff. In less than three years, three businesses have located there, with a fourth due to break ground later this month, said Tom Collins, spokesman for the agency. The project is the Port Authority's most ambitious in the past 20 years. Like Foster, he said there's a lot of energy behind redevelopment in Dayton's Bluff. "I like to say it's palpable," he said.
The first to arrive at Beacon Bluff was HealthEast Medical Transportation, an ambulance repair and logistical service that built its 46,000-square-foot headquarters there in 2010. Next came Baldinger Bakery, which built a $30 million, 144,000-square-foot factory that turns out millions of hamburger buns for McDonald's restaurants across the Midwest and into Canada. The East Side Family Clinic, operated by West Side Community Health Services, opened in May.
And later this month, ground is expected to be broken at Beacon Bluff for the new St. Paul base of Loomis Armored Inc., which is currently located in the Midway area near Hwy. 280 and University Avenue.
That project is the latest at Beacon Bluff involving Jim Stolpestad, chairman of Exeter Realty Co., who has led many upscale developments across the Twin Cities. One of his companies, Ironton Asset Fund, bought a major chunk of the Beacon Bluff property — including Building 21, 3M's world headquarters until 1962 — from the Port Authority for $1, with the understanding it would be developed and attract tenants that offer good-paying jobs.
Stolpestad said he and his fellow investors initially resisted the Port Authority's offer. Having roots on the East Side, he knew the neighborhood's history. That's why he was reluctant — and why he relented. "We had a predisposition to that area," he said.
His office on the 23rd floor of the First National Bank Building in downtown St. Paul looks toward the bluff, where his Norwegian-immigrant great-grandfather settled, drawn by its natural beauty overlooking the Mississippi River. "From a geographical point of view, there's no reason it shouldn't be doing better than it's doing," he said of the neighborhood. "It's really got a lot going for it."
Much of the exterior work around Building 21 is done, and Stolpestad is confident there will be tenants soon.
The old Hamm's brewery also is being revitalized, with Flat Earth Brewing Co. announcing plans this summer to expand into several abandoned buildings.
Hungry for change
Much of the development around Dayton's Bluff is being driven by food. The neighborhood already boasts Italian, Salvadoran, Mexican, Hmong, Vietnamese and Thai restaurants and markets, but food could help make it a destination.
The new East Side Enterprise Center will include a warehouse where local small-scale farmers can store their goods. The Mississippi Market, a growing consumer-owned health and natural food cooperative, is considering opening a store in the empty Hospital Linen building on 7th, a block east of Metro State University.
That could complement the Urban Oasis food hub envisioned by Tracy Sides, who earlier this month won the $1 million Forever St. Paul Challenge. Sides and her team plan to turn part of a vacant century-old rail warehouse at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary in Dayton's Bluff into a place where local produce, meat and fish can be gathered, prepared and sold to schools, hospitals, restaurants and groceries.
"That's the magic of food," said Sides. "It can improve health, strengthen community bonds and it is an economic driver." Plans for the oasis include a cafe, a commercial kitchen for use by a catering firm, classrooms to teach cooking and canning, an affiliated food truck and a worker-owned food processing co-op.
"It's an idea that will really build on a lot of the good things that are already happening on the East Side," she said.