A decade ago, Ramsey County leaders pooled $243 million to buy and restore the historic Union Depot, with a vision for a bustling, modern-day transit hub in downtown St. Paul.

Today, the building with vaulted ceilings and 10,000 square feet of Tennessee pink marble underfoot is a visual showstopper — one that often feels sparsely populated and quiet as a library. Just one Amtrak train to and from Chicago stops there each day, and a smattering of Green Line light rail riders load and unload outside.

But county leaders insist that saving the Depot — which, after federal, state and local investment for the renovation, remains highly subsidized by property taxes — was the right decision. Their long game is finally coming together after pandemic disruptions, they say, with several new transit and passenger rail connections in the works.

"So many cities regret not having saved their Union Depot," said County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who represents downtown St. Paul and championed the renovation. "I think it's very much worth it. Not only does it serve its function as a transit hub, it continues to be a catalyst for a lot of activity in Lowertown."

A 33-acre site that takes up about a third of the downtown riverfront, the Depot has evolved into an events center and retail space. It hosted more than 280 events in 2022, from weddings to corporate parties to yoga classes.

Like other historic buildings the county owns or co-owns, such as the Landmark Center and St. Paul City Hall-Ramsey County Courthouse, local leaders always understood the Depot would require an annual subsidy, said Jean Krueger, Ramsey County's property management director. About $7 million of the Depot's $9.2 million annual operating budget comes from the rail authority property tax levy. Utilities, security and maintenance are the largest expenses, while parking is the primary revenue source, generating $1.2 million of $2.2 million in total revenue for 2022.

"I definitely think it's a worthwhile investment," said St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker, whose ward includes downtown. "It's an opportunity site in St. Paul. It's definitely not fully utilized."

Local officials note that the Depot's rebirth has already triggered downtown development, including the 2015 opening of CHS Field. Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, said he'd like to see county leaders do even more, such as developing surface parking lots that are part of the Depot complex.

There's also the question of transit.

"Having the Depot is really critical for our long-term vision of growing transit connections to the region," Spencer said. "I would not fault county leaders for lacking in time or attention. These are challenging projects. I am confident we will be able to punch them through."

Transit in the pipeline

Nine railroads joined forces in the 1880s to build a passenger terminal in downtown St. Paul, helping to secure the capital city's reputation as a critical transportation hub.

At its peak in the 1920s, nearly 300 trains rumbled through Union Depot each day, moving 20,000 passengers. When rail travel declined, the columned neoclassical building, once a vital center of urban life, fell into disrepair.

But after years of work, transit connections are in the pipeline.

A second roundtrip daily Amtrak train to Chicago is expected to begin service in 2023, providing morning and midday departures from St. Paul and Chicago along the Empire Builder route.

It's too early to tell whether Union Depot or Minneapolis' Target Field Station will serve as the endpoint for the Northern Lights Express — proposed passenger service between the Twin Cities and Duluth. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will seek funding during the upcoming legislative session to study the connection between Target Field Station and Union Depot, said Dan Krom, assistant office director of MnDOT's Passenger Rail Office.

"Union Depot provides an enhanced rail travel experience for current Empire Builder passengers and serves as the premier gateway to the Twin Cities," Krom said. "It is the envy of many large communities that once had grand, historic stations that have since gone away. Additionally, its use as a modern multimodal transportation hub cannot be understated."

The Depot also figures prominently in plans for local bus rapid transit lines, though not all are set in stone.

The $505 million Gold Line BRT, which will link Union Depot with Woodbury, is under construction, with service expected to begin in 2025. Meanwhile, the fate of the proposed Purple Line — BRT service from Union Depot to the northeastern suburbs — is less clear after White Bear Lake officials expressed opposition, and Maplewood called for more study.

Also deep in the planning stages is the Riverview modern streetcar project, which would link Union Depot to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America, traveling mostly along West Seventh Street in St. Paul. Service is tentatively slated to start in 2032.

The much-anticipated B Line, arterial bus rapid transit service that operates in traffic, will also end at Union Depot with service beginning in 2024. The B Line will largely replace the local Route 21 bus, and will link Uptown to downtown St. Paul, mostly along Lake Street, Marshall and Selby avenues.

"The openings of the Purple and Gold lines and potentially Riverview are a few years out yet and much remains uncertain to provide any meaningful estimates, but we do see that high frequency transit brings new riders to transit," said Metro Transit spokesperson Laura Baenen.

Events destination

Though its role as a busy transit hub has yet to fully materialize, the Depot is still a destination.

More than 1 million people visited in 2022, including travelers, diners, event guests and commuters who parked in the 1,600-space lot. The Depot's 30,000 square feet of retail and office space is fully rented, with tenants including a restaurant, bike shop and specialty sweets retailer.

December is the Depot's busiest month, with a holiday tree lighting and sold-out North Pole Express train rides. There's an outdoor European Christmas Market on weekends, where bundled-up visitors can shop for handmade goods and specialty food and drinks from more than 60 vendors.

Events boost business for the Depot's tenants, said Geoffrey Wilson, who oversees social enterprises including Station 81 restaurant, an offshoot of the nonprofit Appetite For Change.

"It's really destination-driven at this point," Wilson said. "Folks need a reason to come out."

Soktevy Phann-Smith and husband Ben Smith recently opened Spinning Wylde Cotton Candy Cafe at the Depot and plan to host a family-friendly grand opening celebration on New Years Eve.

The couple said they specifically sought out a spot at the Depot.

"This space has life flowing through it," Ben Smith said. "It's just one of those things that requires momentum and the guts to give it a shot."