For many years, the offerings in downtown North St. Paul were limited.

You could order a drink at a handful of local bars or pick up a vintage curiosity at an antiques store — and not much else.

But now, after years of discussion and planning, there are signs of new life along Seventh Avenue, the city's historic main street.

Millions of dollars of newly completed road and sidewalk work has refreshed the downtown streetscape. A nearly 100-unit apartment building on the site of the old City Hall opened in November. Families occupy 100 townhomes just blocks from downtown. A new eatery called Brothers Bistro is open for business, and Twin Cities restaurateur and North St. Paul native Brandon Bramscher is returning to his hometown to reboot a historic diner.

Mayor Terry Furlong calls it the start of a downtown renaissance. He said adding new housing and bringing in new residents is critical.

"It's building a community downtown. That is what will keep downtown vibrant. You have to have people," Furlong said.

Best known for its weekly classic car show in summer and its giant snowman statue off Hwy. 36, the city of 12,500 — which dates back to 1887 — had struggled to compete with newer suburbs. But after years of work by city leaders, developers and business owners are taking notice of North St. Paul's small-town charm in the middle of the Twin Cities.

"It's a real gem. A lot of cities don't have a main street," said North St. Paul City Council Member Candy Petersen.

Residents started moving into the Sentinel Residence apartments in November. The building, which includes studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments, is already about one-third leased, said Charlie Hopper, the building's community manager.

"There are definitely people who say, 'Wow, I didn't know this downtown area existed,'" Hopper said during a tour of the new building, which boasts 10-foot ceilings, several community rooms, a rooftop deck and underground parking.

"The goal is to spark a little bit of life into the community and make it so businesses and coffees shops are encouraged to come downtown," he said.

The apartments have already enticed Bramscher, co-owner of B-52 Burgers & Brew in Inver Grove Heights and Lakeville, to establish a restaurant in downtown North St. Paul. He and his business partner will open Mac's Diner in the street level of the apartment building.

The new restaurant will nod to the original Mac's Dinette, which operated downtown from the 1940s through the early 2000s. But unlike the original hole-in-the-wall diner, the new restaurant will seat more than 100 people with room for 70 more on the patio.

Bramscher grew up in North St. Paul, "ripping around" downtown on his bike. His mother, Sharon, still lives there.

"The shinier new cities seemed to thrive. We kind of fumbled along in North St. Paul," he said. "Things are definitely changing."

Bramscher said he was always interested in returning to his hometown, so about seven months ago he e-mailed the mayor, who eagerly took the restaurant owner on a tour.

Bramscher said his childhood stomping ground is an ideal setting for a new restaurant serving up classic American cuisine.

"As Americans, we romanticize the days gone by and the little cozy downtown where everyone knows each other. There is a real draw to that," he said.

Existing downtown business owner Mike Brown said he's cautiously optimistic about this growth spurt. Brown owns and manages Neumann's Bar, billed as Minnesota's oldest continuously operating bar.

"Market-rate apartments should bring in people who want to come, spend money and hang out downtown," Brown said. "I am fine sharing the wealth with everybody."

As a local leader, Petersen said she is pleased with the progress — but the work isn't done.

"We have some empty storefronts we need to fill," she said. "We still want to keep a small-town feel, but we need to grow. We need to keep the momentum going."