As golfers whacked balls onto a new green, Brooklyn Center Mayor Tim Willson sat nearby, thought of Dubai and allowed himself a grin.

Topgolf, the high-tech, all-season driving range and entertainment hub, picked Brooklyn Center for the company’s first Minnesota location, handing city leaders like Willson major bragging rights among its suburban neighbors. How many of them can say they have an attraction soon to come to Dubai?

On a warm September night the mayor sipped cranberry juice, toured the sleek new facility and savored a victory that some see as part of a broader turnaround for the north metro city.

“Twelve years ago, I couldn’t get a developer to talk to me,” Willson said. “Brooklyn Center did not have a good image.”

A dogged reputation as a high-crime city has been tough for it to shake, even as police tout some of the lowest crime rates in years and total crimes have dropped more than 40 percent since 2007.

But as development heats up and home buyers pounce on the first-ring suburb’s affordable real estate, city officials say it’s time to tackle perception problems head-on.

And hopes are high that Topgolf, which opened last month, will galvanize efforts to trumpet the city’s new momentum.

Once defined by the Brookdale mall, most of which was torn down in 2011, Brooklyn Center is ripe for a fresh image, city officials say.

A new logo, tagline (“At the Center”) and an “I Love BC” campaign are part of an ongoing rebranding initiative to stoke community pride in one of the state’s most diverse cities.

“I always felt that Brooklyn Center got a bad rap,” Council Member Dan Ryan said. “We’ve really turned it around.”

New energy

City officials believe the north metro lagged the south metro in recovering from the Great Recession. But now they say investment is trending up in Brooklyn Center, a city of 31,000 squeezed between Minneapolis and its bigger twin of Brooklyn Park.

Through September, city staffers issued building permits for projects valued at more than $60 million, compared with $40 million in all of 2017. The city has added a building inspector position to help keep up, said Meg Beekman, community development director.

Recent projects include a new hotel, car dealership, senior assisted-living facility and a HOM Furniture store that’s moving into a renovated and expanded Kohl’s. A shuttered senior facility is being remodeled into upscale apartments, offering a type of housing the city currently lacks, Beekman said.

City leaders also say their push to scoop up land over the last decade for redevelopment is on the verge of paying off.

Plans are taking shape, for instance, for a developer to transform about 34 acres of city land near Hwy. 100 into a site that could include a mix of housing options, a grocery store, movie theater and hotel.

Balancing act

As development takes hold, some worry about the city staying affordable. Brooklyn Center’s median household income of $46,400 is nearly a third lower than the Hennepin County median.

House prices in Brooklyn Center hit new highs in 2017, and the average market time was the second-fastest in the metro at 35 days, according to an index compiled by the Star Tribune. Yet Brooklyn Center remained the third least expensive city in the index.

Affordable prices attracted residents like Tamika Baskin to town when she bought her house in 2014, moving from Richfield. Not that she was sold on Brooklyn Center to start with.

In fact, worried about crime, she told her real estate agent to avoid it. But then she visited in person and in the end chose a home there over Richfield, Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Park. The city’s rich variety of cultures was a key selling point, she said.

“Being an African-American woman, I wanted to live in a location that had more diversity,” she said.

More than half the residents of Brooklyn Center are people of color, according to data from the research project Minnesota Compass. Enclaves of new Americans also call the city home. About 1 in 5 residents are immigrants, often drawn to the two Brooklyns to live near relatives.

“It’s about being close to family,” said Nelima Sitati Munene, executive director of the metro area nonprofit African Career, Education and Resource Inc. “Most of the time, that’s the immigrant story.”

As part of rebranding efforts, new street banners emblazoned with residents’ photos soon will showcase the city’s changing makeup.

Diversity and affordable houses also drew Council Member April Graves to the city in 2011. Graves, who grew up in St. Paul, said redevelopment should offer more housing variety while protecting affordability.

Much of Brooklyn Center’s housing stock sprouted before 1970, with lots of ramblers and small starter homes but limited larger options.

“It’s finding that balance. ... We already have a lot of affordable housing, but that’s what we need,” Graves said. “That’s who lives here and why they live here.”

‘A hidden jewel’

City officials are hopeful that Topgolf will help elevate the city’s reputation as a regional attraction. But not everyone in town shares their enthusiasm. Some lament the loss of the movie theater that Topgolf replaced and said they’re skeptical of the hoopla surrounding the project.

Richard Morris, who has lived in the nearby Riverwood neighborhood for nearly 50 years, said he was surprised Topgolf picked Brooklyn Center and unsure the facility could make it. “I was very skeptical,” said Morris, a retired accountant.

But his wife, Mary Jo, wants to try the restaurant there. Plus, she pointed out, the couple never thought the Mall of America would make it, either.

During a crowded preview event last month, the mayor sampled a plate of Topgolf’s fare and recounted darker days in Brooklyn Center.

When he moved to the city 28 years ago from Kasota, a tiny town 75 miles south, people wanted to give his wife, now-state Sen. Chris Eaton, a Kevlar vest, he said.

Much has changed since then, Willson said.

“For years, we’ve told people Brooklyn Center is a hidden jewel in the metro,” he said. He gestured to Topgolf’s LED light-studded pizazz as proof of the city’s turnaround.

“At night, it just glows,” Willson said. “Glows!”