For many years, offerings in downtown North St. Paul were limited.
You can order a drink from a handful of local bars or buy a vintage curiosity from an antique store – and not much else.
But now, after years of discussion and planning, there are signs of new life along Seventh Avenue, the city’s historic main street.
Millions of dollars of recently completed road and sidewalk work has refreshed the downtown cityscape. A building of nearly 100 units on the site of the old town hall opened in November. Families occupy 100 townhouses within a few blocks of downtown. A new restaurant called Brother’s Bistro is open, and Brandon Bramscher, restaurateur from Twin Cities and native of North St. Paul, returns to his hometown to restart a historic restaurant.
Mayor Terry Furlong calls this the start of a downtown renaissance. He said adding new housing and bringing in new residents is critical.
âIt creates a community downtown. That’s what will keep the downtown area vibrant. You have to have people,â Furlong said.
Best known for its weekly summer classic car show and giant snowman statue off the highway. 36, the city of 12,500 inhabitants – which dates back to 1887 – had struggled to compete with the newer suburbs. But after years of work by city leaders, developers and business owners are taking note of the small town charm of North St. Paul in the midst of the Twin Cities.
“It’s a real gem. A lot of towns don’t have a main street,” said Candy Petersen, North St. Paul City Council member.
Residents began moving into the Sentinel Residence apartments in November. The building, which includes studios, one and two bedrooms, is already rented to about a third, said Charlie Hopper, the building’s community manager.
âThere are definitely people who say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this downtown existed,’â Hopper said during a tour of the new building, which has 10-foot ceilings, several community halls, a roof terrace and underground parking.
âThe aim is to give the community some life and to encourage businesses and cafes to come downtown,â he said.
The apartments have previously prompted Bramscher, co-owner of B-52 Burgers & Brew in Inver Grove Heights and Lakeville, to establish a restaurant in downtown North St. Paul. He and his business partner will be opening Mac’s Diner on the ground floor of the building.
The new restaurant will be a nod to the original Mac’s Dinette, which operated downtown from the 1940s to the early 2000s. But unlike the original restaurant, the new restaurant will seat over 100 people and 70 more on the patio.
Bramscher grew up in North St. Paul, “ripping” downtown on his bike. His mother Sharon still lives there.
âThe brighter newer towns seemed to thrive. We kind of fumbled around in North St. Paul,â he said. “Things are definitely about to change.”
Bramscher said he was still interested in returning to his hometown. So about seven months ago, he emailed the mayor, who was quick to give the restaurant owner a tour.
Bramscher said his childhood playground was the perfect setting for a new restaurant serving classic American cuisine.
âAs Americans we romanticize the past and the cozy little downtown area where everyone knows each other. There’s a real draw to that,â he said.
Current downtown business owner Mike Brown said he was cautiously optimistic about this growth spurt. Brown owns and operates Neumann’s Bar, billed as the oldest operating bar in Minnesota.
âMarket-priced apartments should attract people who want to come in, spend the money and hang out downtown,â Brown said. “I’m going to share the wealth with everyone.”
As a local leader, Petersen said she was happy with the progress, but the job is not done.
âWe have empty storefronts that we need to fill,â she said. “We still want to keep a small town feel, but we have to grow. We have to keep the momentum going.”