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Transit hub: Ticket to wealth, or pipe dream?

Newport could open the door to lucrative mass transit oriented development if it moves ahead with planning for a park and ride and future commuter rail stop on a vacant commercial lot, Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson told city officials in a meeting last week.

But current cash needs might supersede a long-term plan for the old Knox Lumber site, some Newport officials suggested. Waiting for the fruits of transit development that could be more than a decade off is a hard task in tough economic times, mayor Tim Geraghty said, especially on a site officials believe is primed for redevelopment.

"I can't wait 20 years for something to happen," he said.

Peterson, county transportation planners and a bevy of Newport commissioners and council members discussed the location of a potential multi-modal transportation hub in Newport and funds available to help the city in planning for the site.

And while some gushed about the potential benefits a park and ride and Red Rock commuter rail station could have for the city, others stayed firmly rooted to present-day economic anxieties.

The message from Geraghty and councilmember Tom Ingemann was simple: show us the money.

The key, Geraghty told Washington County officials, is for Newport to purchase the site and take control of its redevelopment. Financially, though, that's impossible for the city to do by itself, he said.

'A catalyst for development'

Newport officials have identified three possible sites for a hub in the 2030 draft comprehensive plan -- two sites along Seventh Avenue near the Glen Road overpass and Peterson's preferred locale, the 11-acre former Knox Lumber site in northwest Newport near the junction of Highway 61 and Interstate 494.

But with a company interested in a warehouse and office facility for the site and the city's budget crunched by reduced state aid dollars, the possibility of development in the near-term -- even if it would make a relatively small impact on Newport's tax base, as Peterson warned -- makes planning for and waiting on commercial development around a Knox site transit facility a tough sell to some officials.

"When the city's this strapped for cash, that looks pretty good," said city council member Ingemann of the warehouse and office proposal.

Geraghty says he doesn't want the city to be "penny-wise, pound-foolish" in planning the future of the Knox land, which has been considered Newport's best opportunity for large-scale commercial redevelopment by city officials. But the city needs to develop the site soon, he said.

"There's companies willing to put millions into developing the site in the next five years," Geraghty told Peterson.

That, Peterson says, would be shortsighted. With federal stimulus money flowing, Minnesota Department of Transportation dollars available from a Wakota Bridge settlement and local lawmakers in St. Paul and Washington supportive of rail projects, Newport should be looking ahead beyond the current economic downturn and budget crunch, she said.

"Plans are made for the future," Peterson said. "We can't just live for today."

Historic Preservation Commission member Steven Lanz came out in support of transit-oriented development on the Knox site, saying that park and ride and transit facilities in the southwest metro showed "they're not just blacktop parking lots."

A burgeoning mixed commercial and residential district has sprung up around the Bloomington Central Station on the Hiawatha light rail line, with more than 1,000 housing units, 2 million square-feet of office space and 75,000 square-feet of retail. It's an example of what Peterson and other rail advocates are trying to sell the city on.

Instead of just a paved lot like park and rides along Highway 61 in St. Paul and Cottage Grove, the goal is to develop the area around a facility that creates what Washington County transportation planner Andy Gitzlaff called location efficiency, with places to shop, eat and work in close proximity to a transportation hub.

"The station is not just a standalone item," Gitzlaff told Newport officials. "It's a catalyst for development around it, for capturing that potential."

Geraghty estimated the city would need $2 million to $3 million to purchase the Knox site. The investment would be worth it, Peterson said, though she said development would likely be five to 10 years off.

Ingemann was skeptical, saying the Knox site's proximity to a resource recovery plant that processes municipal garbage from two counties, and host of other industrial properties will worry developers.

"Everyone can have these crystal palace dreams," he said, "but you've got to realize what you have."