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Raceway to Fun site catching developers' eyes

Newport's drive for commercial redevelopment may soon get a boost, the city's director of economic development said last week.

The city has been plagued by stagnant commercial growth and timid developers during the now-completed Highway 61 reconstruction and the protracted, still-unfinished Wakota Bridge project which State Rep. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, called a "frustrating, long, embarrassing" process, late last year.

But interest from multiple developers in the former Raceway to Fun site on Hastings Ave. and opening of bids for the second Wakota Bridge span on Friday may supply the kick-start Newport needs, said director of economic development Bart Fischer.

"I think we're cautiously optimistic, just based on how things have been delayed," in the past, Fischer said. "But if after Friday they've awarded a bid and we can just start moving on this (commercial development) it helps us greatly. It's another thing when we're out and about we can say, 'Hey, (the bridge) is going to be done in 2010, or whenever MnDOT says it's going to be."

The bridge's eastbound span will be finished in the fall of 2010 -- three years later than the scheduled 2007 completion -- Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau said in a release last Friday.

After years of delay, though, with the project apparently moving again, Newport officials can at least point to progress being made, a fact that could help get the wheels of development turning again, officials said.

The potential development being looked at along Hastings Ave. is an "office showroom, office warehouse type product," Fischer said, though he couldn't divulge many details because no concrete agreement is in place.

But should a deal be struck, it would be a positive step for a city that has seen developers shy away and numerous existing businesses struggle or close, choked by the dust of nearly a decade's worth of construction.

"If something like this were to go in it clearly shows we're moving forward and we have a great location," Fischer said. "Obviously, these guys were interested and we're getting over the stigma that there's piles of dirt and concrete."

Jon Avise can be reached at