U ponders vast land’s use

Than Tibbetts

When University administrators use phrases like “unique expanse” and “priceless asset,” it often amounts to nothing more than gross overstatement.

But when University President Bob Bruininks used those terms to describe 12 square miles of undeveloped land near Rosemount, he wasn’t kidding.

The land, which is larger than the city of Golden Valley and slightly smaller than Edina, is the largest undeveloped tract of university-owned land near a major U.S. city.

The Board of Regents on Thursday heard Bruininks and Charles Muscoplat, dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, describe the one-of-a-kind parcel of land and the University’s efforts to begin using it.

Many regents seemed to have trouble grasping the scope of the project, known as UMore Park, which stands for University of Minnesota Outreach, Research and Education Park.

The land is home to two University research centers and an assortment of smaller tenants, running the gamut from radio towers and a lawn services company to a gun club and a bomb squad.

Although it was just a work session, the board floated ideas ranging from selling the whole property to systematically building up the area – essentially turning the University into a land developer.

Regent John Frobenius offered the former idea and said he wasn’t sure developing the land was compatible with the University’s academic mission.

“This has the potential to be a distraction,” he said.

Muscoplat, head of the executive committee overseeing the planning process, said the University would “eat the elephant one bite at a time,” and would manage any development rather than actually doing it.

Regent David Larson pointed out that because of the encroaching development of the metro area the land might be worth more in a sale.

“With the potential value of that land, can we afford to do crop research?” he said.

The University acquired the land – 7,686 acres in all – in two chunks from the U.S. military in the 1940s for $1. The land was being used as a munitions plant, known as Gopher Ordnance Works, during World War II.

Part of the reason the University hasn’t done anything with the land since the 1940s is that the metropolitan area had yet to expand to the borders of the land, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, the University’s chief financial officer.

Larry Laukka, executive director of UMore Park, said there are few, if any, models to compare the land to.

He could offer only Walt Disney World or perhaps some towns built in the 1970s as general comparisons to the size of the potential development.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said nothing legally prevents the University from being a developer. In fact, he said, the University has wide-ranging land management powers going back to timber and mineral rights for more than a century.

By the end of the meeting, a consensus seemed to form; that the University should benefit from the land, both financially and academically.