A “for sale” sign recently went up in front of the E.J. Houle Feed Mill in downtown Forest Lake, fueling an ardent discussion among residents about what they hope for the old mill and the 3.2 acres it sits on.

The business’ five co-owners understand how the potential demolition of the 102-year-old mill and feed store may come as a blow to what’s left of Forest Lake’s small-town roots.

But after years of wanting to sell and retire, the Houle siblings have signed a purchase agreement with Dallas-based developer Gatehouse Capital, which has proposed a conference center and hotel for the site with the possibility of condominiums and a rooftop bar. The parties wouldn’t disclose the sales price, but the Houles were asking $1.75 million for the property.

The proposal will be discussed at the Economic Development Authority (EDA) meeting at the end of the month.

“We see this as a way to continue the service to the community even after we close our doors,” said 74-year-old Gary Houle, one of the co-owners. “Every morning, we still open up the same doors my grandfather put on in 1916. It’s going to be hard to see that go, but if there was a way to pass this on to a fourth generation, we would have done that.”

The site’s location in the heart of the city and near the lake makes it a premiere property for redevelopment, said Mayor-elect Mara Bain.

“Anytime you have a once-in-a-hundred-year opportunity to transform it into what’s next, of course there’s a lot of interest and excitement,” Bain said. “Everyone wants to play the ‘What should go there?’ game.”

The family long has received offers on the property, Houle said. A concept floated in 2008 included a mixed-use building with retail and apartments, but the sale fell through because of the recession.

The current agreement between the Houle family and Gatehouse Capital anticipates a public-private partnership with the city. Bain said those plans are still in the pre-concept stage, and welcomed community feedback for the upcoming EDA meeting.

“Whatever goes there is going to be change to our downtown that is of incredible interest to the city as well as to our residents,” Bain said. “The city looks forward to reacting to those concepts as they develop.”

Making downtown vibrant

David-Elias Rachie, a developer with Gatehouse Capital and a Forest Lake resident, said the city is in need of space to host conferences or receptions. Adding a bar and restaurant to the site would offer an amenity that all residents could use, he said.

“Far more people will utilize this venue than the Houle property as it is now,” Rachie said. “Downtown is the last visual piece of old Forest Lake. The bigger picture then is, how do you bring a vibrancy to downtown? This will bring that.”

Sarah Henke, a Forest Lake resident, wants to see the Houles’ legacy honored in any redevelopment plans. The feed and farm supply store not only has been her go-to stop for pet food, she said, it’s a source of nostalgia for the community. The mill has even become a popular backdrop for prom and wedding photos.

“I would hope that the property stays as community-oriented as the Houles kept it for so long,” Henke said. “That in and of itself would be a great [memorial] to their legacy.”

Rachie said he hopes to incorporate some of the property’s history into the development plans, something the community was calling for even before the proposal went public. More than 160 people commented on a November social media announcement of the property listing, most echoing a desire to see some element of the buildings restored.

Bob Muske, the real estate agent representing the Houles, said pushback was anticipated.

“I understand what folks are upset about — it’s hard to digest change — but I also have to see it from my clients’ side,” he said. “They have a valuable piece of real estate and they are ready to retire.”

For Gary Houle, walking away from the business is bittersweet. He’s already thinking about how he’ll miss going to work and seeing his regular customers.

“There is going to be some heartache in this,” he said. “We had to eventually exit anyway, and this opportunity was enticing in what it will mean for Forest Lake.”