All ‘ifs’ aside, Northland Mall plan makes sense

No one should be surprised by the need for redevelopment of the Northland Mall site on south US-61 in Forest Lake. The 30-year-old mall has never been a bonanza for its owners and today the mall sits 90 percent vacant.

Plans by PACE Development to anchor the mall with a new MarketPlace Foods have not been able to get off the ground and may never.

That’s one of the reasons the city of Forest Lake has entered the picture with a proposal to redevelop the mall site with a mix of new retail concerns and a city government site housing police, fire and city administration. The new complex would replace the existing city hall on north US-61 which is crowded and not a good candidate for renovation.

Mayor Chris Johnson and the council are to be commended for stepping forward with an attempt to solve two problem areas for the city. Relocating the city hall will open property in the downtown where a second developer is considering a multi-family housing project. The mall redevelopment would bring a refreshing new look to the Highway 61 Corridor and pump in new life and tax base. There would be valuable drainage improvements to the site, as well, that have never been adequately addressed with past projects.

There are still plenty of “ifs” to be solved before anything can happen.

The city must now wait to learn if the Minnesota Legislature will approve special legislation allowing a tax-increment financing district set to expire in 2015 to be extended an additional 10 years. The tax dollars captured in the TIF will play a key role in covering eligible expenses tied to the Northland Mall redevelopment.

There are still deals to be struck with the mall owner for the purchase of the property and with the developer of the city hall site. If those deals aren’t done, the plan will collapse. If the Minnesota Legislature grants the extension, the city will have until the opening of the 2013 session to get those deals done or the legislation dies.

There is another big “if” that is yet to be addressed. That question involves the total mall project cost and how it would be funded. If the expenditure is to go before voters in form of a bond issue, the full cost impact to taxpayers and the benefits of the projects must be outlined in detail.

There has also been little discussion regarding what is to become of the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau which leases space in the former Post Office building that is owned by the city. Will there be space in the new complex for YSB staff members and programs?

If the city hall campus is to be redeveloped, it only makes sense that the entire block is included.

There is another question that needs to be addressed. For the past decade, the city has toyed unsuccessfully with numerous plans for a community center.

If the new city hall complex is built, does that mean that a community center is a dead topic?

If planning for the mall site is serious, perhaps the city should explore the community center components that could be incorporated into the mall site and what costs would be needed.

The city has given some indication the mall project could be expanded to SW 11th Avenue on the north end. That would involve the relocation of a successful business which presents more hurdles, but would provide a large land parcel to address all needs.

If the public is ever to be asked to vote on a community center, perhaps this is the time.

All “ifs” aside, and there are plenty, the city seems to be on the right track in addressing needs that are important for today and the future.

How these issues play out could well be Forest Lake’s defining moment. — Cliff Buchan