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City looks to develop land off Highway 33, I-35

For the first time since 2009, the city of Cloquet has a preliminary development agreement for the land east of Highway 33 and north of Interstate 35 that officials hope will be the next big commercial development to the area.

0 Talk about it

Let the rumors begin. Will it be a Target store, a Menard’s or even a Cabela’s?

It’s way too early to tell, said City Administrator Brian Fritsinger after the Cloquet City Council approved four different agreements related to what they’re calling the Highway 33 Retail Project.

“In 2007, we had a preliminary development agreement with a site design and a specific project,” Fritsinger said. “Now we have a preliminary development agreement, but no site design or specific business, so we’re kind of starting over.”

On the bright side, he added, for the first time ever, the city also signed option-to-buy agreements with the two landowners: the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which has its offices on part of the site, and Nels Nelson and Sons, Inc., which no longer operates a business on its land.

While the purchase price of the DNR’s eight acres contiguous to Highway 33 is unknown at this time, the purchase price for the Nelson’s 16 acres — if the option to purchase is exercised — would be $1 million.

Under the terms of the agreements, the developer (Ryan Companies) would have three years to market the property to the commercial retail industry, with an option to extend to a fourth year if the developer is engaged in negotiations with a major anchor tenant for the commercial development.

The conceptual development footprint is a 24-acre site comprised of the higher terrain on both the DNR and Nelson properties. If the land is developed, the city will have to pay the costs of relocating the DNR offices, possibly to the nearly empty Cloquet Business Park off Highway 33 north of Cloquet.

“This site is a priority project for the Cloquet [Economic Development Authority] and City Council as it is visible from I-35, thus making it an important gateway entrance into Cloquet,” Community Development Director Holly Butcher wrote in her staff report.

She got no objections from city councilors or Mayor Bruce Ahlgren, who voted unanimously in favor of the agreements.

“It’s been a long road,” Ahlgren said, “and something I’ve wanted to see happen for a long time. Now if we can just get our first tenant in, I’ll feel a lot better.”

Addressing the Council via conference call over speaker phone, Ryan Companies Development Director Tony Barranco said he became familiar with the Cloquet market in 2007, when Ryan Companies was looking at a different retail project here [which didn’t happen].

“Our opinion is that retail in your area is dramatically underserved … being the crossroads to the Iron Range and North Shore,” Barranco said. “So we got more actively involved with the [Highway 33 Retail Project] site, and we’ve been working on it ever since.

“Our intent is to market to a broad base of retail users. We want to come up with a project that makes sense and grows the retail corridor to the south.”

In other matters Tuesday, the Mayor and Council :

  •  Approved a cooperative project agreement for phase 2 of the the Fond du Lac White Pine Trail waterline extension;
  •  Approved the annual agreement with Cloquet Community Education. The city pays Community Ed to manage both the Pine Valley tubing hill and the swimming pond at Pinehurst Park, as well as oversee park and facility rentals and numerous other services.
  •  Advised City Administrator Brian Fritsinger to begin the process of looking for an outside company to assist in the search for a new police chief, because current Police Chief Wade Lamirande has tentatively given notice that he will retire sometime in May, as a result of impending changes to the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) regulations.

The staff report presented the mayor and Councilors with a choice between hiring externally, using a search company, or promoting from within.

“Is it safe to characterize the external approach as being inclusive of internal candidates?” At-Large Councilor Lara Wilkinson asked.

Fritsinger said yes, stressing that the city would not exclude any internal candidates, as they have skill sets and knowledge that other candidates might lack.

In the end, the vote was a mixture of both. Councilors suggested the city work cooperatively with a search firm, hiring them for some search tasks and doing others internally. The cost of working with a search firm could be as high as $15,000, Fritsinger said, noting that the process can take two or three months, which is why he was asking the Council for direction.

Ward 5 Councilor Steve Langley was the only one who didn’t favor an external search.

“I think Terry Hill would be a great police chief and we should look [instead] at hiring an assistant police chief,” Langley said.

“If we use an outside firm and include internal candidates, if we have a qualified internal candidate, he is going to rise to the top,” Ward 1 Councilor Dave Manderfeld said.