CEO Jim Breen, a veteran of the food industry, is relocating his fast-growing Way Better Snacks company from Long Island, N.Y., to the century-old Tractor Works Building at 800 Washington Av. N. in the born-again North Loop.

Breen, 47, is something of a forced entrepreneur who got merged out of a job after his company, Celestial Seasonings, was acquired a few years ago.

Financed by his savings, family and few friends, Breen started the premium Way Better Snacks, several lines of tortilla chips that feature "sprouted ingredients like flaxseed, chia seeds, quinoa, black beans and broccoli seeds" for the growing legions of health-conscious snackers.

Breen, who graduated from Metropolitan State University in the Twin Cities and once worked for the Creamette Co. here, said he expects revenue of $12 million to $14 million this year. He's planning to hire up to 20 workers by 2014 at the bright, colorful headquarters in what was once a machinery plant.

Breen also is part of the commercial renaissance of the Warehouse District and North Loop neighborhoods, which have evolved from small factories and warehouses decades ago — including the two where I worked summers to help make tuition at nearby DeLa­Salle High School — to a thriving business-entertainment district hugging downtown. The area boasts an eclectic mix of professional services, IT and software shops, restaurants, artists lofts, retail, industrial suppliers and fitness centers in buildings like the TractorWorks and Ford Center.

They have gone from dank and sparsely occupied to thriving over the last 20 years.

Breen decided to move his wife and three young kids to the Twin Cities for the Midwest lifestyle. And the Twin Cities, it turns out, is Way Better's strongest market.

"Our business is growing rapidly and we are in two-thirds of every grocery retailer in the Twin Cities, including Lunds, Byerly's, Whole Foods, Kowalski's, and numerous natural-foods coops," Breen said. "I ended up on Long Island because that's where my company put me years ago. I chose Minneapolis … consumers here get what we are doing … simple, high-quality, devoid of things that are problematic to some diets. It's a great market for our type of company. And I've got connections here.''

Employment bouncing back

The downtown area, including the North Loop and Warehouse District, is back to prerecession employment levels approaching 160,000. However, city and state officials, and even the Warehouse Business District Association are unable to reliably quantify the North Loop employment surge, partly because so much of it is driven by solo entrepreneurs, contractors and freelance workers who don't show up on government employment surveys.

The Warehouse-North Loop area residential surge in recent years of several thousand new apartments and condominiums has gotten lots of attention. But the gradual expansion of commercial enterprises has been significant as well, helping the city maintain a slightly lower unemployment rate than the state average.

Cathy Polasky, director of economic development for the city, said Minneapolis is home to about 200,000 working-age people and boasts about 290,000 jobs. And the North Loop/Warehouse District has joined downtown as the big tip of that employment spear.

"It's all about creativity and creating jobs," said Dan Carr, CEO of the Collaborative, which gathers entrepreneurs with financiers in a variety of forums and programs. "There are a lot of people in Minneapolis creating high-paying jobs and you're seeing a vibrant economy blessed with diversity and that goes for the breadth of Fortune 500 companies as well as the smaller innovation-based companies just north of downtown and in northeast Minneapolis."

Burgeoning business scene

These growing companies, some of which didn't exist a decade ago, are driving the growth of the North Loop, and, to a lesser extent, the conversion of once-vacant warehouses and factories in northeast Minneapolis. For example, the Ford Center, which made Fords a century ago, has undergone a $40 million renovation near Target Field and is fully leased.

Developer Hines, which acquired a 6-acre swath of North Loop land last year, mostly parking lots, for $13.7 million near Target Field, has plans for a nearby office tower with enough space to fill five small Target stores. The mix of bus, light rail, car and bike transit opportunities, a variety of restaurants and vibrant night life also are driving the day-side commercialization of the North Loop.

The names reflect entrepreneurial diversity and a creative bent: Atomic Data, Code 42, Calabrio, Olson, Akquracy, Barrie D'Rozario Murphy among others.

It's difficult to quantify but the employment and commercial activity certainly are generating an economic buzz.

"We're hiring," Breen said. "Our business is spiking upward. I'm blown away by the restaurants and small businesses and quirky, creative kind of feel around here. I'm almost feeling old."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144