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Former St. Louis County Jail may finally find new use as apartment building

Support continues to build for a project that has been years in the making.

FILE: Former St. Louis County Jail
The old St. Louis County Jail at 521 W. Second St., Duluth, in October 2013. (Steve Kuchera / File / News Tribune)
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Grant Carlson bought the former St. Louis County Jail in 2010 with high hopes of redeveloping the historic structure into a downtown office building and conference center. But renovating the unique old building and finding a way to put it back to productive use has been a challenge, to say the least.

Carlson's plans morphed into redeveloping the building into housing in recent years, and now with a pair of new partners, Jon Commers and Meghan Elliott, a viable project finally appears to be close to liftoff: They plan to convert the former jail into a 34-unit apartment building.

The complex would include a mix of studio and one- to two-bedroom units, with four of those set aside as affordable housing for households earning no more than 60% of the area median income.

PREVIOUSLY: Developer wants to convert old Duluth jail into office space
Together, the three partners have formed New Burnham LLC, and on Wednesday, the Duluth Economic Development Authority unanimously voted to provide the project with $1.2 million in tax-increment financing, or TIF. That support will still need to win the approval of the Duluth City Council before it can be finalized.

TIF is a form of business subsidy that uses new tax dollars generated by a development over a set period of time — 26 years, in this case — to cover certain costs that would otherwise sink a project. Commers referred to the assistance as "essential" and called it "a really significant step."

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The cost of the project is anticipated to top $8.26 million.

Former St. Louis County Jail.jpg
(Gary Meader / gmeader@duluthnews.com)

In addition to the aid DEDA proposes to offer, the project also has garnered more than $2.5 million in federal and state historic tax credits. But in order to make use of those credits, the building will need to be in use by the end of 2022. Commers said they hope to begin redevelopment work no later than August or September and continue through the winter.

He explained that his team is working diligently to put the final financial pieces of the project together.

"It is fair to say that there are plenty of remaining hurdles, including the fact that the cost of building materials has been rapidly increasing. So, that's certainly on our radar," he said.

But Commers expressed confidence the project will come to fruition, nevertheless, citing the excellent advocacy it continues to receive from city and county officials.

The former jail once appeared destined to be reduced to a pile of rubble. In 2009, St. Louis County proposed to demolish the structure, which dates back to 1923, but the Duluth Historic Preservation Commission and City Council objected to those plans, providing time for Carlson to step forward and buy the building.

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File: Grant Carlson
Developer Grant Carlson tours the former St. Louis County Jail in October 2010. (Bob King / File / News Tribune)

PREVIOUSLY: Fight is on over preserving the old downtown Duluth jail
The proposed redevelopment will be dubbed the Burnham Apartments, in honor of Daniel Burnham, the architect who designed the jail and stately civic center campus next door.

Commers said he's grateful the building was preserved.

"There are a number of things that just make this project so compelling," he said. "Obviously, there's a housing shortage. The structure itself is jaw-dropping, in terms of the quality of construction, the potential longevity of the structure, the proximity to the city civic center and really the original design, having incorporated the jail building as part of that campus.

"There's just a lot about it that's super-exciting and unique."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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