Long dismissed by many as a rough-around-the-edges town on the metro area’s far northern horizon, Blaine has evolved into one of the Twin Cities’ more affluent suburbs and is poised to become Anoka County’s pre-eminent city.
Fueled by a decades-long housing boom, progrowth leadership and the National Sports Center, the city of 61,000 is wealthier, better educated and more diverse than the county as a whole, and soon will overtake Coon Rapids as the county’s largest city if population trends hold.
The people who typically called Blaine home have changed dramatically. The number of college graduates living in the city has risen from 20 to 32 percent since 2000. Median household income has jumped from $52,200 to $73,500, as the once blue-collar town best known for sod farms and mobile-home parks has become a model for upwardly mobile suburban living.
“The schools are great. Our kids are happy. We are in a good neighborhood,” said Blaine resident Todd Olson. “It’s really easy to get to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul from Blaine. Blaine is in that sweet spot — close enough but far enough away.”
The city, which has 11 industrial parks, welcomes business as warmly as it does the many new homes, shopping and eateries. Last year, the City Council approved more than 500 homes and apartments, its first eight-story office tower, a new high-end home decor store and a trucking terminal.
Council Member Dave Clark moved to the city in 1991, after finding the best house for the best price. His father, he said, wasn’t pleased.
“My dad said, ‘In Blaine? Are you nuts?’ ” Clark said. “Blaine had the reputation as the trailer-park capital of Minnesota. I don’t think anyone would call it that now.”
Sand — and sports
Longtime Mayor Tom Ryan, a retired trucker and sod farmer, is rooted in the Blaine of old.
“It was a city of sand dunes and manufactured housing. We couldn’t get a loan on the land I owned,” he said.
Ryan said the seeds of change were planted in the mid-1980s, when city leaders made a controversial decision to extend city sewer and water to the eastern half of the city. At the time, Blaine’s population was centered between University and Central avenues, and residents weren’t interested in new neighbors.
“It was pretty much a fight all the way. Nobody wanted it. I was the one who was supposed to stop everything,” said Ryan, elected to the City Council in 1986. “It didn’t take me three months to find out there was no way to stop it.”
Still, it was unclear whether it was feasible to build in much of the area. Substantial parts of the city were flat, boggy and covered in peat that was 4 feet deep in some spots.
Then state leaders selected Blaine as home for the 600-acre National Sports Center. Opening in 1990, it became the largest and most-visited amateur sports complex in Minnesota, drawing about 4 million visitors a year.
The sports center is now in line to become the practice home and headquarters for Minnesota United FC, the new Major League Soccer franchise slated to play in St. Paul. Many credit the sports center for putting Blaine on the map.
“Youth sports is not lost on Realtors, builders and families,” said Bryan Schafer, Blaine's longtime community development director.
The city won another sports trophy in the 1990s when the Professional Golfers Association chose Blaine for a private PGA Tour-owned golf course and enlisted golfing legend Arnold Palmer to design it.
Schafer said it was the first project to tackle Blaine’s tricky terrain. Crews scraped off the peat until they reached sand and then moved massive amounts of earth to create hills and ponds for the course.
Soon the course was ringed with new homes — the first million-dollar estates in the city, Schafer said.
Then five developers created the Lakes of Radisson, a 1,100-acre neighborhood that would add more than 3,000 homes and townhouses.
The development, started in 2001, resulted in the city’s first significant water features, including Sunrise Lake. “To look at something that big and create those lakes, it was a big risk,” Ryan said. “It’s really worked well and it’s turned out to be just awesome.”
Developers say the city’s acceptance of a denser neighborhood of that size, with a variety of housing options and a range of price points, was groundbreaking and still is. The city rarely uses tax incentives to attract new homes and businesses, but it provides infrastructure and planning, Blaine City Manager Clark Arneson said.
“The city is progrowth and was very good to work with,” said Hans Hagen, one of the founding Lakes developers.
It’s paid off, Clark said. “We are adding just shy of $1 billion of market value with the Lakes,” he said.
The Lakes was just part of a larger homebuilding surge. At the building peak in 2004, more than 1,000 homes went up in Blaine in a year’s time. Even when the economy tanked in 2009, the city added 289 homes — one of the highest totals in the Twin Cities. The wave drew former Spring Lake Park Mayor Harley Wells, who moved with his wife across the city line in 2008.
“We were looking for a single-level, stand-alone townhouse. We looked around the area — Coon Rapids and Blaine. We kind of fell in love with the Lakes of Radisson,” said Wells, who is on the association’s board of directors.
Adding industry and jobs will be a key goal moving forward, city leaders say. Blaine currently has about 24,000 jobs, and the Northtown Mall area, built in the 1970s, remains the city’s biggest employer and tax generator, Schafer said.
Blaine is home to Aveda, the high-end skin and hair care product line. It’s also home to Infinite Campus, which creates student data management software for schools across the country. The corporate campus, which opened in 2008, is expanding into a new eight-story office tower that will allow Infinite Campus to double its workforce from 400 to more than 800.
The Olsons reflect the people drawn to Blaine in recent years by the city’s amenities and sense of community.
Todd Olson commutes to his public affairs job in downtown Minneapolis, and Rebecca Olson, who has a master’s degree in public administration, works for the city of Shoreview. Their four children all play sports at the city’s parks and athletic facilities.
“It’s really great having all those fields. Blaine is a huge sports town,” Todd Olson said.
Rebecca Olson grew up in Fridley and liked the north metro area, so the couple bought a home on Blaine’s older west side in 2002. They moved into a larger home on the newer east side about 10 years later.
“It was a pretty easy decision to stay. We had already put down roots, liked the community, wanted to stay involved with sports and everything else the community offered,” Rebecca Olson said.