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The special election for Ramsey County commissioner is (almost) all about the Rice Creek Commons project

Nicole Frethem and former state Rep. Randy Jessup are running for board’s District 1 seat. 

Rice Creek Commons
A rendering of the Rice Creek Commons development
Rice Creek Commons

While representing northwestern Ramsey County at the state Capitol last year, Republican Rep. Randy Jessup heard a lot of concerns over plans to redevelop the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP), a massive plot of land in Arden Hills that was once used to manufacture military ammunition. 

Between meetings with county leaders or talks with city councils, the debate over what to do with the 427-acre property was a key part of his tenure representing District 42A, he said. 

So after he lost his re-election bid for the Minnesota House last fall and after former Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman resigned in summer 2019 — Jessup saw an opportunity. “I knew that this was not going well,” he recalled of the redevelopment project, now called Rice Creek Commons. “Once he resigned, I decided, ‘You know what, I really should put my name forward, on the ballot.”

Now Jessup is running in the Ramsey County special election against Nicole Frethem, a state Department of Human Services supervisor who is the DFL-endorsed candidate in the race, and someone who has a different approach on how to proceed with Rice Creek Commons. 

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Jessup is siding with the city of Arden Hills, which feels the county is flexing inappropriate authority over the project’s design. Meanwhile, Frethem said the issue wasn’t a motivating factor in her decision to run for office, and she isn’t taking a firm stance between the county and Arden Hills. 

“Whenever you have two parties, and they don’t feel like they’re being heard or their positions are being respected, you end up as a party protecting your own space,” Frethem said. “[Most people] want to make sure that we’re maximizing the potential in that space and doing it in a way that isn’t going to necessarily create something that undermines how Arden Hills operates.”

A brief history of a big fight

In 2012, voters first elected Huffman to represent the board’s District 1 which includes Arden Hills, Gem Lake, North Oaks, Shoreview, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Township, as well as portions of Mounds View and Spring Lake Park. 

Rep. Randy Jessup
Former Rep. Randy Jessup
Huffman sailed to re-election in 2016. But earlier this year, Huffman resigned from the Ramsey Board of Commissioners after an investigation found the housing nonprofit he founded and ran, Journey Home, had received $60,000 from the county to buy two homes for low-income veterans but ended up selling one of them to Huffman’s sons. Another one of Huffman’s six sons served as a real-estate agent on the sale.

Less than one month after Huffman’s resignation, a dozen candidates lined up to succeed him, and the Rice Creek Commons project soon emerged as the defining issue in the race. 

The site of the project, the former home of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, is located east of Interstate 35 and north of County Highway 96, and includes roughly enough land to cover the geographic area of downtown St. Paul. 

Constructed during World War II, the TCAAP then operated like a small city, with military crews working around the clock to manufacture ammunition. The operation scaled back after the war concluded, but when the Korean War began in 1950, the plant once again started producing ammunition, part of a wax-and-wane pattern that continued for decades.

In the early 1990s, however, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency began pressuring the federal government to clean up chemicals found at the site, and the Army began stepping away as the property’s owner. After that, several redevelopment proposals were considered over the years, though none came to fruition. 

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But in 2012, Arden Hills and Ramsey County entered into a joint powers agreement to decide what to do with the vacant plant. At the time, officials floated the idea of building a new Vikings Stadium on the property, but that proposal died quickly. Then, in 2013, after private developers passed on the purchase, Ramsey County bought the land from the federal government for $28.5 million.

Nicole Frethem
Nicole Frethem
Working with Greater MSP and the St. Paul Port Authority, the county and city agreed to build a hub of neighborhood housing, with neighboring stores, offices and restaurants as well as several sites for light industrial work. 

But the city of Arden Hills imagined residential streetscapes that match its suburban landscape of low-density homes with spacious yards and garages, while the county saw the site as an ideal opportunity to help fill the region’s growing shortage of affordable homes with denser residential properties. The county now wants to increase the number of housing units from its original plan, potentially by more than 1,000 homes, and make sure a larger portion of them are less than market rate. 

Both the county and city have blamed each other for poor communication and a lack of cooperation, and in May, Ramsey County filed a lawsuit against Arden Hills, alleging that the city failed to work in good faith to resolve debates over density, affordable housing and funding. The county requested that a judge eliminate the two parties’ partnership on the project. In August, the judge overseeing the suit ordered the county and city to attend mediation meetings before anything else happens. 

Common ground on other issues

In August, primary voters in District 1 narrowed the crowded field to Jessup and Frethem — the top two vote-getters — who will face off in the November election. Frethem received 41 percent of the vote in the primary while Jessup secured 34 percent. 

Frethem said she empathizes with both sides in the lawsuit and that, if elected, she would look to people who have been involved with the project longer than she has for guidance. “It seems like [the county has] been talking about their concerns about the density for some time and frustrated that there’s no give on that from Arden Hills,” she said. “Talking to Arden Hills City Council members, they don’t feel like their concerns are being heard … and they don’t feel like their interests are being protected.”

But in the end, she added, “as someone who is really passionate about every family having a safe and secure housing, I want to find ways to make that happen at that site.” 

She said she wants the site to help reach the county’s goal of spurring affordable housing and meet the needs of low-income residents in Arden Hills. She also emphasized that it’s possible that goals for the project have shifted over the years and that the plans need revisiting.

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Frethem, of Shoreview, has an endorsement from the county’s DFL Party. In addition to building more affordable housing, both at Rice Creek and elsewhere across the county, she wants to see the county take steps to reform child care licensing, as well to expand public transit.

Meanwhile, Jessup who has support from the county’s GOP Party though he said he has not sought an endorsement is urging Ramsey County leaders to drop the Rice Creek Commons lawsuit. An engineer by trade and owner of five UPS stores, Jessup says he has the networking skills to negotiate a solution, and he wants Ramsey County leaders to honor their original plan for housing and keep decisions over design as local as possible.

Ramsey County District 1
Ramsey County District 1
“You need to go forward with what you have committed to,” Jessup said. “I don’t think it’s right for the county to now place additional demands upon the city for this development.”

Both candidates have found common ground on other issues, including reforming the county’s groundwater management plan, since many District 1 residents are currently dealing with pervasive flooding. The District 1 commissioner will have to deal with fallout from a controversy involving Water Gremlin, which makes fishing sinkers and lead acid battery terminals in White Bear Township and had emitted toxic pollution for more than a decade.

Because the election is to fill Huffman’s seat, whoever voters choose on Nov. 5 will serve just one year. The seat will be back on the ballot in 2020 for a full four-year term, along with the seats representing District 2 (Roseville, New Brighton and Little Canada) and District 7 (Maplewood, North St. Paul and White Bear Lake).