The University of Minnesota has big plans for UMore Park, 5,000 acres it owns south of the Twin Cities. The university hopes to build an environmentally friendly community on the land, one that could be home to 30,000 people in a few decades.
The university's UMore Park proposal is massive in scope. Essentially, the university wants to build a new town from the ground up near Rosemount, about 20 miles south of the Twin Cities.
Charles Muscoplatt is in charge of statewide resource development at the university. In the next 20 to 30 years, Muscoplatt envisions a community built as a model of sustainability, one that shows people how to live in the 21st century. It would be home to tens of thousands of residents along with schools, businesses and industry.
Don't think of it as Utopia, but a modern energy-efficient community "that strives for carbon neutrality, self-sufficient in energy production, lots of green space and planned for transportation," Muscoplatt said.
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Right now, the eight-square-mile piece of land, which the university bought for $1 from the U.S. Army half a century ago, is essentially abandoned. One portion holds massive concrete ruins left by the Gopher Ordnance Works, a short-lived World War II-era gun powder factory. Most of the property though is farmland the University currently uses for research.
The first phase of the UMore Park development is actually under that farmland. An estimated 380 million tons of gravel sits under the soil, a valuable resource the U wants to mine starting in the summer of 2011.
That plan clashes with work done by some of the university's own researchers.
Lois Braun, a research associate at the university, is studying hazelnuts and whether they might make a good alternative crop in Minnesota. It turns out her research plot sits right on top of hundreds of millions of tons of gravel.
"Apparently that vein of gravel runs right up through here," Braun said. "It happens to coincide with the land that is the best farmland out here."
Braun figures that within a few years her plot, and the research plots of other researchers, will be dug up as the area is mined for gravel. She questions whether that activity is worth the loss of land.
"It's part of the legacy of the people of Minnesota, to have this land to research the future of food production," she said.
University officials say mining for gravel won't stop research at UMore Park. They say there's plenty of farmland just a few miles to the south that won't be mined.
The gravel mining might mean a healthy profit for the U. Within a few years the school could pull in $3 million to $7 million annually from the operation. Concerns about the project haven't been limited to the effects of mining on research at the site.
University of Minnesota Regent John Frobenius said early in the planning for UMore Park, he wasn't convinced that the developing of a community was something the U should do.
Frobenius feared the U of M would sink money into a development that might fail, especially in a tough economy. But now he's comfortable with the plan because it's up to developers to put up the money, not the university.
"We have a good long-range plan for how development will occur if the market permits us to do that, and private investors are willing to invest in it," Frobenius said. "Those opportunities will evolve over time. It could turn into a very exciting development for that region of the state."
The U of M's Charles Muscoplatt said the key to making Umore Park work is to proceed with housing development only when the housing market improves.
"It's very important to us to be contributing money to the university, as opposed to taking money away," Muscoplatt said.
So far, the university has put more than $9 million into the plan. Muscoplatt said gravel mining revenue means the project will pay that money back by next year, and start providing revenue to the university.
If the new community is built, it will actually be within the city limits of Rosemount. The U is working with the city to plan for the future development.
Rosemount's community development director Kim Lindquist said for the most part, residents are excited to see what happens at the Umore site. But she said some in town are skeptical, probably because previous developments didn't pan out.
"There are some people that are taking a little bit more of a wait and see approach in terms of really what's going to happen and how quickly things will happen because of some of those false starts decades ago," Lindquist said.
U officials admit those earlier development proposals weren't as well thought out as the current one. They say this time they're on better footing.
University officials say the only project they can find on a similar scale is in Denver. That's where developers are building a new neighborhood on the former site of Denver's Stapleton Airport.
So far 10,000 people call the new Stapleton neighborhood home. Developers say 30,000 people could live there within 15 years.