The abandoned military grounds haven't changed. The handsome yellow-brick buildings are still boarded up, the overgrown fields creased by the wind like some verdant sea of grass.

But after years of much talk and hand-wringing, the pieces are falling into place to remake Fort Snelling's Upper Post -- cousin to the historic fort that attracts thousands annually -- and the nearby light-rail station area into a mixed-use, self-sustaining development that also respects its storied past.

The result would be a unique village atop the river bluffs, next to the airport, that would include offices, shops, museums, even housing and a hotel. Between old and new structures, up to 4 million square feet might be available for development -- about the size of the Mall of America.

The Boy Scouts already are re-making a former drill hall into an activity center. And plans are afoot to build a new aviation museum on the airport side of the property.

"We hope to market it as a new city that already has a past to it," said St. Paul consultant Dan Cornejo.

The Legislature this session included $1.2 million in the bonding bill to shore up and restore the post's dilapidated 112-year-old hospital building. Gov. Tim Pawlenty also signed into law a historic rehabilitation tax credit, which promises developers a return of 20 percent of their cost for restoring qualifying historic properties.

The deed that transferred the Upper Post from federal to state ownership in the 1970s is being revamped so that the property can be used for more than recreational purposes.

Moreover, Hennepin County has stabilized most of the deteriorating buildings through the use of skilled and inexpensive Sentencing to Service crews, made up of low-risk offenders working off jail time.

Cornejo is drawing up a master plan, expected for later this summer, to redevelop the Upper Post and the area around the nearby Fort Snelling light-rail transit stop. The plan will include re-use of the old buildings and construction of new ones.

There are no firm cost figures, and no firm idea of when it might happen. The most recent estimate to redevelop the Upper Post and other nearby historic buildings is $80 million, most of which would come from private investment.

The planning includes descendents of the area's oldest inhabitants, the Mdewakanton Dakota, for whom Fort Snelling represents scenes both of happiness and loss.

"We've continuously participated in various meetings and ... been advocating for strong Dakota involvement," said Syd Beane, a consultant with the Native American Community Development Institute.

'A heck of a location'

So why restore a bunch of old buildings on an unknown site that few people even know how to find?

Advocates say the buildings have regional and national significance. The centrally located site has been made more accessible because of light rail. That combination of history and location has greased the wheels of economic development in other places, they say.

"Historical preservation has evolved into not only thinking about culture and making the case for saving it, but also needing to make an economic argument for saving these historic places," said Bonnie McDonald, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

The Upper Post site is owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and sits within the National Park Service's Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Not part of any city, it occupies the last unincorporated chunk of Hennepin County.

Supporters hope to form a joint powers board to spin the project to the next step, which could be the establishment of a federal reserve to encourage reuse of historic properties.

One such model is the Vancouver National Historic Reserve in Washington State, a riverfront district created by Congress in 1996 that encompasses a historic fur trading depot, an old U.S. Army post, an early airfield and a significant American Indian site.

Those are features that echo Fort Snelling's history, which runs from the 1820s-era Historical Society fort site to the modern international airport just over the Upper Post's chain-link fence.

The Vancouver reserve features offices and businesses, as well as townhouses and duplexes, in restored houses that were built for Army officers stationed there in the 1800s.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who visited the Vancouver site last year, is convinced the same can be done with the Upper Post.

"It's a heck of a location," McLaughlin said. "If you look at what's happened in Vancouver or Fort Sheridan [in Chicago], they're gorgeous places to go work or live once you get the basics in place and create a business model that actually works."

Projects already planned

The old post is already seeing more activity than it has in years.

The Boy Scouts' Northern Star Council is restoring a former red-brick drill hall known as the Hippodrome for use as a "Base Camp," a training site and launch pad for hiking and camping in the nearby state park. The $16 million facility is expected to open this fall.

At the post's end adjoining the airport, a Minnesota Air and Space Museum and education center are being planned that would use three post buildings and add three more.

Supporters have secured a number of approvals and are raising money, said consultant and Minneapolis architect Bill Hickey.

"The Upper Post would be a good site because we want to be next to a runway, and it would retain a relationship with the military base," Hickey said. "It also would be an opportunity to play off and partner with the historic fort."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455