Olmsted County commissioners don’t plan to leave the former Seneca Foods site empty while waiting on a decision from the Rochester City Council on a future rapid-transit connection there.

“I have no interest in waiting for the city,” commissioner Ken Brown said.

The county spent $5.6 million on the 11 acres that housed the former canning facility, and another $2.2 million has been earmarked to prepare the site for future development, while also restoring the iconic ear-of-corn water tower.

The purchase was intended to provide space for a previously planned mixed-use transit hub as part of a rapid-transit project. However, Rochester City Council members and commissioners failed to reach full agreement on plans, and the city opted to start with a Second Street system that would run from a west-end mixed-use transit hub to Mayo Civic Center.

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The scaled-back $114 million plan is seeking federal funding to cover nearly half the cost, with state Destination Medical Center funds expected to cover additional expenses to develop the system, which could be operational as early as 2025.

Splitting the proposed southern connection from the project created uncertainty for the Seneca property’s future.

Patrick Seeb, executive director of the DMC Economic Development Agency, said a final decision on a second leg of the planned rapid-transit system won’t likely be made until the first portion is up and running.

“We have projected in forecasting our budget to the DMC and city council that we would begin a phase 2 study and analysis in 2024,” he said, adding that a southern leg isn’t certain and plans could change.

During a recent discussion of options for the Seneca property, county commissioners brainstormed preferences for the site that is currently being cleared.

“There isn’t a lot of consensus around the table,” said Mat Miller, the county’s director of facilities and building operations.

Some commissioners said they would prefer to keep the original project on track, even without initial city involvement.

“I thought we came to a place where we had a vision for a mixed-use development that made a lot of sense, that had some commercial space, had a transit hub, had affordable housing, and would create a whole anchor for that corner and that part of the city,” commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said.

Board Chairwoman Stephanie Podulke also cited a desire to lean toward original plans, offering a mix of parking and services for people who drive into the city, but don’t want to deal with driving downtown.

“I see this as a wonderful thriving corner of things happening for people who are coming in from out of town,” she said.

The former Seneca plant is demolished Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
The former Seneca plant is demolished Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Commissioner Mark Thein, who opposed the county’s purchase of the Seneca site, didn’t argue against a mixed-use development, but he cited concerns about the county taking on the effort. He pointed to work the city and private landowners are conducting on a similar plan surrounding the former Kmart and AMPI sites.

“I’d like to see what private interest is and see if we can get out from under it,” he said of the Seneca site.

Brown, who supported the original purchase, said he’s changed his view and sides with Thein in wanting to see the site sold, adding it could generate revenue for the county.

“I think that’s the highest and best use, I really do,” he said of a sale.

Miller said anticipated county investment is expected to be $15.97 per square foot, without water tower expenses, since the tower would likely remain in county control.

An early appraisal of the property put its value at $15 per square foot if were "development ready," but Miller said the Kmart site was valued at $16.17 per square foot under similar conditions.

In comparison, the former AMPI site was purchased for $3.75 million, which Miller said calculates to $6.62 per square foot as it currently sits.

Commissioner Gregg Wright, who had joined Thein in opposing the Seneca purchase two years ago, said the better value for the county could be to work with a private developer to build something that will generate steady rental revenue.

“We have the opportunity to produce income, and I think we should take it,” he said, adding that the revenue would help the county provide services, such as affordable housing.

Commissioners Jim Bier and Matt Flynn suggested waiting to see if another interest emerges.

“My vision would be to keep it as an entertainment complex,” Flynn said, adding that the county should maintain control of the site which is near Graham Park.

Bier said he’d likely back selling the property at some point, but added that it could be used for entertainment options that don’t quite fit in the county’s long-term vision for Graham Park.

Miller said it’s uncertain when the county will officially seek proposals for the property, but it would likely be some time this year.

Olmsted County continues to look a options for the site of the Seneca Foods plant. (Post Bulletin file photo)
Olmsted County continues to look a options for the site of the Seneca Foods plant. (Post Bulletin file photo)


Timeline

  • 1929 -- Reid-Murdoch and Co. launches canning operations at 1217 Third Ave. SE in Rochester.
  • 1931 -- Ear-of-corn water tower is constructed.
  • 1948 -- Libby, McNeil and Libby Inc. acquires the operation.
  • 1982 -- Seneca Foods purchases the plant.
  • June 2018 -- Seneca announces it will end canning operations.
  • Feb. 19, 2019 -- Olmsted County Commissioners vote 5-2 to purchase Seneca site for $5.6 million.
  • May 23, 2019 -- Discussion during Destination Medical Center Corp. board meeting reveals conflicting views of site as potential location of transit hub.
  • April 20, 2020 -- Rochester City Council holds closed session to discuss possible agreement to use a portion of the former Seneca site as a rapid-transit hub.
  • April 21, 2020 -- Olmsted County commissioners hold a closed session to discuss proposed agreement.
  • May 4, 2020 -- Rochester City Council unanimously votes to start work on rapid-transit project without connection to the Seneca area.
  • Nov. 3, 2020 -- Olmsted County approves a $1.1 million contract to demolish the canning facility and restore the water tower.