With the reconstruction of Robert Street starting, West St. Paul is looking into new businesses to line it.
The city is facilitating redevelopment for a parcel spanning just over 4 acres from the corner of Robert Street and Wentworth Avenue, but the project could displace at least one local mainstay.
City officials have signed a preliminary development agreement with Shorewood-based Venture Pass Partners to build along a stretch of Robert Street from a city-owned site of a former Blockbuster to the corner. The area also includes MAACO and AAMCO auto shops, a city-owned vacant lot, a Batteries Plus store and Granny Donuts.
Plans for the site are not set, but West St. Paul has approved a concept plan for a project dubbed "Town Center," which would include retail spaces in multiple buildings, a specialty grocery store and possibly a sit-down restaurant.
The city will sell the Blockbuster site to the developer, who will negotiate the sale of the other land, West St. Paul City Manager Matt Fulton said. Those "active discussions" are ongoing, said George Janssen of MarketPointe, who is brokering the purchases.
Granny Donuts owner Xuan To said he'd had one meeting about buying his land but hadn't received a concrete offer yet. To has run the shop with his wife, Que Banh, for 27 years. They have occasional help from their four children, but To said the couple still work 14-hour days, often arriving at the shop before 2 in the morning. Their pastries have attracted loyal customers from across the metro area, To said.
Fulton acknowledged some in the community will be sensitive about the project's potential effect on Granny Donuts. While negotiations are up to the developer, Fulton said the city is interested in balancing those concerns with needed redevelopment.
"There's still a very viable, successful business, and we're trying to work with the property owners to make sure we're not messing their business up, and on the other hand trying to [meet] the long-term development needs of the entire corner," he said.
Since Granny sits in the middle of the proposed site, To joked that developers would have to build up and over the existing storefront. With a good offer, he would try to relocate, but he can't be sure business will follow, he said. To said he's already worried the Robert Street reconstruction will make his shop tougher to get to.
West St. Paul is making final preparations for a sweeping reconstruction of its main drag. The city is planning to add a median lined with trees as well as benches and lighting along 2.5 miles of Robert Street, with more trees and pathways on either side. The project is set to cost more than $22 million in combined city, state and county funds.
Bringing new businesses and development to make the area more attractive and walkable is crucial, Fulton said, and the city is facilitating the Town Center project to help spur that growth without passing the costs on to taxpayers.
The Dakota County Community Development Agency awarded West St. Paul a $250,000 grant in May to help mitigate the cost of property acquisition and demolition. West St. Paul's grant proposal stood out because the Town Center concept signified "smart growth" with apparent environmental benefits and the removal of blighted property like the defunct Blockbuster, said Andrea Brennan, the agency's director of community and economic development.
The CDA funds are for redevelopment preparations, and indeed the project is in the early stages. No deals have been brokered yet, Janssen said, and it's too early to comment.
Fulton said the developers are eyeing one potential tenant for the future retail complex, but he declined to comment further.
To said he and his wife have no desire to retire, but relocating could be too expensive. Developers have come calling in the past and been turned away, To said, but he isn't sure what he'll do this time.
"I say 'no' all the time, but I don't know," To said. "There's pressure. You don't have a voice, you don't have power. They have power, they have money … We'll see what happens."
Tony Wagner is a Twin Cities freelance writer.