Nearly two years after the downtown St. Paul Macy's store made its final sale and locked the doors for good, a potential redevelopment with a high-profile tenant is taking shape.
By purchasing the blighted building in January 2014, the St. Paul Port Authority aimed to save the 2.25-acre site from what city officials feared would be a serious blow: an uninspired development. But cobbling together a deal hasn't come easy and the Port Authority, a quasi-governmental entity active in the city's economic development, is eager to find a private owner so it's not left heating the 363,000-square-foot building for another winter.
"I have conversations ongoing with people in every category: tenants, buyers, potential joint ventures. The watched pot never boils, but I keep getting a feeling that it is ready to," said Lee Krueger, senior vice president of real estate and development for the Port Authority.
The Minnesota Wild confirmed last week it is in serious discussions with the Port Authority about a potential practice facility on site for the hockey team.
"There's a lot of different ideas of how the space would be laid out. But it was not built with the thought of being a practice facility. We are having those conversations to see if it can sustain an ice rink," said Jamie Spencer, Wild vice president of new business development.
While questions about the building's ownership and details of the possible arrangement were not disclosed, one thing is for certain: hockey isn't enough. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who supported the Port Authority's $3 million purchase of the Macy's site so as to maintain some influence over its future uses, believes strongly in the block's position for driving growth.
"[The practice facility] would be an interesting concept for the development that would enliven it and not just make it a closed-off private building, but it would serve multiple purposes," said Coleman.
No curb appeal
Spencer says the Wild organization agrees and is looking to play a part in revitalizing St. Paul's core.
"We also like St. Paul. We think it is great for the city. We don't have a deal done, but we do have an interest in that site as being mutually beneficial for the team and the city," he said.
The building is located in a central portion of downtown that is currently struggling, sandwiched between a vibrant Lowertown neighborhood with Mears Park and a new Saints ballpark scheduled to open this summer, and the Rice Park area with its twinkling lights and nearby cultural attractions.
"I always say, 'Downtown St. Paul has two of the nicest downtowns in America, unfortunately separated by the middle part," Coleman said.
The mayor remains a staunch defender of the Macy's site's potential. "It's one of the critical blocks in the city of St. Paul … it is symbolic of where we are headed," Coleman said.
But the building and its 590-stall parking ramp is no trophy piece.
Its skyway jutting across Wabasha Street leads nowhere. Gray and black graffiti speckle its facade along 6th Street. And its reflective windows are covered with spit, smudges and smears.
"My first vision for the site was that we needed to tear it down because it's this hideous, ugly building that has very little character," Coleman said. "But that was very expensive."
But once sketches were made of the building with a new skin — industry parlance for a building's shell — Coleman said he saw that "it won't look like it does today," if those ideas take root.
The Port Authority's due diligence report shows that it would cost about $15 million to demolish the structure and about $27 million to renovate for new mixed-use purposes.
"It's a huge building and there's a lot of room to do stuff in it, but part of that is making it more attractive and appealing from an outsider's perspective," he said.
It's also about changing perceptions, said Jim Stolpestad, chairman and principal at Exeter Group, a St. Paul-based developer, specializing in urban projects.
"One of the biggest challenges for development in downtown St. Paul is negative perception locally, regionally and nationally. It is beginning to change, but that is the biggest obstacle," Stolpestad said.
Ready to get started
He should know. The St. Paul native is renovating the old Post Office building in the heart of his hometown, transforming it into 202 apartment units and 149 hotel rooms.
As for the idea of a Wild practice facility at Macy's, Stolpestad said "it would certainly be a nice piece of the puzzle."
The Wild have been looking for a practice facility site for years.
"I don't think it's any secret we've been seeking a practice facility. It's a very important component to building a Stanley Cup team," Spencer said.
In 2009, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a state financing plan for a practice facility across the street from the Xcel Energy Center. The idea was revisited a few years ago, but was put on the back burner by the city's campaign for state bonding funds for the new Saints stadium in Lowertown St. Paul. Meanwhile, Edina tried to woo the team, but the Wild strongly favor St. Paul.
There are many moving pieces that have to be nailed down before this deal gets the green light — like other tenants — but the Wild is ready, if and when that happens.
"We are still working out a lot of details," Spencer said, "but we will be ready to get started as soon as we feel the right agreement is in place."