When Paul Gaston thinks of a "city center," he does not envision Wal-Mart as a centerpiece. The Vadnais Heights City Council member said he can't believe that's on the verge of happening.

Other city officials, however, are excited that a proposal to create a downtown for their suburb -- one anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter -- could become reality next month. That's the city's deadline for a signed agreement between Wal-Mart and a developer to build the Village at Vadnais Heights.

"I call it a new suburban downtown," said supporter Gerry Urban, Vadnais Heights' city administrator. "The old-fashioned downtowns ... aren't done anymore. Some people don't like the big box [retailers], but they are the engines that create something."

Gaston sees it differently.

"You've got a 300-pound elephant in the middle of city center," he said. "It's not what looks good."

The Vadnais Heights debate reflects the struggles facing suburbs across the metro area as they attempt to create a new version of downtown for their residents. In this case, the focus is on a parcel of land at the southwest corner of Interstate Hwy. 35E and County Road E that the city had earmarked as part of its future village center.

Last year the city approved a development plan that calls for tearing down the existing Wal-Mart on the site and building a Wal-Mart Supercenter, along with at least a dozen smaller stores and architectural amenities to give it a hometown feel. The project developer is Manley Commercial Inc. of Eagan.

"There will be water features, a flower garden, benches, lots of planters, an outside fireplace,'' said Kurt Manley, company president. "This will be an amenity-rich project."

Manley said he knows of at least a half-dozen Twin Cities suburbs that have built their downtowns around big box retailers. St. Anthony's Silver Lake Village, for example, also was built around a Wal-Mart. The big retailers provide the foot traffic that keeps the area vibrant, he said.

But some Vadnais residents are disappointed. "I'm not opposed to Wal-Mart; I just don't think it's a city center," said Rick Halvorson. "When I think of a city center, I think of White Bear Lake. That feels like a downtown."

The City Council initially denied the Wal-Mart expansion project on a 3-2 vote last year. But two weeks later, the proposal got a second vote, this time winning 3-2 approval.

It was a contentious issue, with residents bombarding City Council members with e-mails and phone calls. And at a special council meeting, residents testified in two camps -- those who supported the idea as an attractive central location for residents to gather and shop, and those who had a different vision of downtown. There also were concerns about competition and Wal-Mart's labor practices.

Gaston and others questioned whether the 11 smaller shop spaces that are part of the project will attract tenants, given the rough economy.

Manley said he has possible tenants for the three larger retail spaces on the site -- including a major office-supply store and an outdoors retailer -- and for the 11 smaller spaces.

Those possible tenants are waiting for the signed Wal-Mart agreement before they make a firm commitment, Manley said. The site's location directly off I-35E makes it attractive, he said.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and rumors are swirling in Vadnais Height that the project may not go forward, after all. Manley said that's not true: "The bank is on board. Wal-Mart is on board. The city is on board. And we're on board."

Wal-Mart officials did not return phone requests for information about the project.

Assuming the project moves ahead, construction of the first phase -- the Wal-Mart Supercenter -- could begin as early as September, Manley said.

Vadnais Heights leaders such as Urban are keeping their fingers crossed that they hear construction equipment this fall. The 300,000-square-foot retail development would generate an estimated $1.1 million tax base, up from $400,000 today, Urban said.

"The next 30 days are critical," he said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553