When neighbors balked at a proposal to build apartments on city-owned land, Vadnais Heights leaders decided to let residents devise a plan for the property.

Members of a citizen task force said they wanted a destination brewery or distillery and community gathering space on the 3-acre site near the shores of Lake Vadnais. More than a year later, the Ramsey County suburb's experiment with a new, populist form of community development appears to be working.

Big Wood Brewery signed a purchase agreement with the city this fall with plans to move its taproom and production operations from downtown White Bear Lake to the new site.

"We are going to be taking it and transforming it into something cool," said Big Wood Brewery owner Jason Medvec, describing his vision for an expanded taproom, indoor and outdoor gathering spaces and a live music venue. "It's about a half mile off the freeway but you feel like you are getting away."

The brewery will pay $225,000 for the property and is expected to close on the sale by the end of the year, according to city staff. They intend to renovate the shuttered Garceau's Hardware building on the site, and Medvec said they are still exploring their options for the older Vadnais Market building.

City leaders say they anticipate a significant investment in the property, and Mayor Heidi Gunderson said she is pleased the city is able to honor residents' requests.

"We heard loud and clear they didn't want a high density development in that corner. It would have been a tight squeeze anyway," Gunderson said. "I viewed the property as taxpayer-owned, and they should have a say in how the land was developed."

She said she's impressed with the early visions for the brewery.

"It's going to be such a fantastic space in the community," Gunderson said. "I couldn't be more excited. It's going to be such a beautiful location."

The city in 2015 began acquiring the property on Centerville Road, which includes the remnants of an old gas station, with an eye toward redevelopment. Many viewed the mini business district as the suburb's de facto downtown. The city obtained $1 million in grants to clean up pollution on the site, including old fuel tanks, and began talks with a developer to build apartments.

Citizen task force

The plan didn't sit well with the mostly single-family homeowners whose properties surround the site, so the city gave back the $1 million to clean up the property and formed a 14-member citizen task force in 2019. An outside professional facilitator, Bennett Community Consulting, guided the task force, which spent months touring the property and speaking with developers, real estate professionals and business owners.

They debated whether the city should attempt to recoup some or all of the $835,000 in funding and staff time invested in the property. Contamination at the site and the rough state of the buildings also factored into the sale price and what could ultimately be built there, city staff said.

Schoolteacher and task force member Ashley Wilke proposed the brewery idea and the task force officially recommended it in early 2020. City staff aggressively marketed the site, sending out more than 500 letters to existing brewers and distillers who may be looking to expand.

Wilke said she's thrilled their vision is now becoming reality.

"I think it's really awesome to hear there will be a brewery in the Vadnais Heights area and one that is already popular and established, at that," she said. "The brewers are hoping to bring beer lovers to the area, build community and offer a unique atmosphere with green space, which is exactly what I was envisioning for that lot when the task force was meeting."

'Shared vision'

Medvec said he received one of the letters from the city and quickly toured the site. Big Wood Brewery started in 2009 in Vadnais Heights before moving to White Bear Lake in 2011. "I took one look at the property and I knew it would be amazing," said Medvec, of White Bear Lake.

The pandemic has slowed the deal, but city leaders have remained committed to honoring the task force's recommendation, said Vadnais Heights Community Development Director Nolan Wall.

"It's a shared vision," he said.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037