Our view: County purchase of Seneca site offers possibilities

February 23, 2019

Now that Olmsted County commissioners have voted 5-2 to purchase the former Seneca Foods site for $5.6 million, the most important news is NOT that the ear of corn water tower will be preserved.

Yes, in some minds, that might have been enough to support the purchase. But for the county, and Rochester, there are potentially bigger plans for the site. A mobility hub and expansion of the Graham Park fairgrounds have been the most often mentioned possibilities.

But, the devil, as they say, is in the details. At this point, there aren’t a lot of details.

What we do know is this: The 11-acre site at 1217 Third Ave. SE, is a prime location, and the sale will become final June 30.

Purchase of the site either puts the taxpayers at risk, as two county commissioners complained, or it set up the county to recoup its investment in partnership with private developers, as the majority of the county board believed.

At first glance, one would have to agree with the risky portion of that argument. Developers have been diving into the Rochester market in recent years. This site, a bit farther from all the downtown development, might offer some fresh opportunities. But, is the market about to slow down over fears of overbuilding? Time will tell. And how much above the purchase price will it cost to make the site usable?

On the other hand, the county could stand idly by and watch the Seneca site, which has so much potential, sit vacant and deteriorate while awaiting another buyer. By contrast, both options mentioned so far — the mobility hub and expansion of fairgrounds — fill long-term goals.

The hub would be another way to hopefully ease the traffic heading downtown.

Expansion of Graham Park (the Olmsted County fairgrounds) offers the opportunity to turn that complex into something truly special.

Along the way, there’s no way of knowing what private developers might offer in terms of retail or other uses for a portion or all of the site.

County officials seem sure they’ll recoup their investment in the not-too-distant future. That might be classified as speculation, but it appears to be informed speculation.

This is a case of making the best of what could have been a deteriorating situation. An empty plant in a prime location is not only unattractive, it would be counter-productive.

For all of those reasons, we support the purchase.

And in the bargain, the water tower gets preserved.