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County zeroes in on Knox site

Washington County may purchase a former commercial site in Newport that transportation planners favor for a bus and rail transit station, then lease the lot to a Minnesota-based concrete supplier interested in purchasing the site until large-scale development is ready to occur.

County officials last Thursday sought the Newport City Council's support in purchasing the former Knox Lumber site on Maxwell Avenue, an 11-acre parcel that transportation planner Ted Schoenecker said is No. 1 on the county's wish list for a Newport transit hub.

County Commissioner Myra Peterson told Newport officials earlier this year a mass transit station on the Knox property could be lucrative for the city, bringing in transit-oriented development in an area city hall has long wanted to redevelop.

But recent private sector interest in the property city officials have been marketing aggressively for years complicates the issue, they say.

Mendota Heights-based Cemstone Products Co. has expressed interest in purchasing the site situated at the junction of Interstate 494 and Highway 61, said Newport City Administrator Brian Anderson.

He said Cemstone representatives have told the city they would likely locate 10 to 15 employees at a facility on the northern Newport site and would use the now overgrown parking lot to park a fleet of heavy trucks overnight.

A 2007 study identified Newport as a stop along the 30-mile Red Rock Corridor that will run from Minneapolis to Hastings. County transportation planners envision a multimodal commuter bus and rail station and have said the Knox site holds the most potential for transit-oriented development to spring up around a station.

Anderson and Washington County officials have discussed an arrangement that could see the county purchasing the site in 2010 -- if it is awarded $2.5 million in Counties Transit Improvement Board funding requested earlier this month -- then leasing the property to Cemstone until further transit-related development is ready to occur.

"If we buy this site we will be moving quickly," said Wayne Sandberg, Washington County's deptuty public works director, after city council members expressed concern the county would purchase the land, then leave it undeveloped for a number of years. "We will build a transit center on this site."

Newport's Web site lists the price of old Knox Lumber site, located at 2222 Maxwell Avenue, at $2.76 million. Sandberg said the county hadn't spoken with Cemstone regarding the possibility of a lease.

A lease agreement, council member Pauline Schottmuller said, would be "the best of both worlds," allowing Cemstone to use the property, generating tax dollars for the city, while also letting Washington County lay the groundwork for a future park and ride.

The lease option is attractive to the city, Anderson said, because Washington County's purchase of the land would remove it from the tax rolls. That, he said, would cost the city roughly $27,000 in property tax revenue per year, a concern for officials in the cash- strapped city.

Newport would continue receiving tax revenue from the site if leased; Sandberg also said the county is open to the idea of phasing out the tax revenue over an undetermined period to lessen the blow.

"We don't want to donate all that land and not get anything in return," said city council member Tom Ingemann.