A bucolic farm field on Woodbury's eastern edge is transforming into a buzzing e-commerce hub expected to bring hundreds of workers to this once-quiet corner of Washington County.
Amazon in August opened its newest sort facility, a 525,000-square-foot building visible from Interstate 94. Woodbury leaders say it's the crucial bookend to a 400-acre light-industrial, warehouse, showroom and office district they hope will create jobs, bolster the tax base and help the suburb of 75,000 shake any remnants of its bedroom community reputation.
"It's a lovely facility," Mayor Anne Burt said. "It's on a beautiful site, and it's great to have employment opportunities here in Woodbury."
Kindeva Drug Delivery, a 3M spinoff that develops and manufactures pharmaceuticals, has opened its worldwide headquarters on the other end of the emerging business district. Several other projects are also in the works, said City Planner Eric Searles, and hundreds of apartments and townhouses have gone up nearby to provide housing for workers.
"The city is really thrilled with the quality of the first two businesses," Searles said. "It's an impressive first step to implement the economic vision outlined in the 2040 plan."
Woodbury has provided no financial incentives for Amazon to come to Woodbury, Searles said. In fact, Burt said, developer Ryan Cos. spent more than $10 million to extend utilities, including street upgrades for sewer and water, to the city's far edge.
Development will likely halt there. Leaders in neighboring Afton, half a mile from the Amazon facility, say that while they respect Woodbury's autonomy to grow within its own borders, that growth won't be spilling over into their rural enclave of 3,000.
Afton Mayor Bill Palmquist said his community has watched as crews erected the massive Amazon building, which according to planning documents could bring hundreds of employees and 140 semitrailer trucks a day.
Afton is adding some light-industrial businesses, but they have to be able to function on well and septic systems, Palmquist said.
"There are not plans at all to put in municipal services. We don't have them nor do we want them to cross over," he said.
The town has a 5-acre minimum lot size for most new homes — except in the historic village area along the St. Croix River — and that won't change, Palmquist said. He said he hopes the two cities can work together to create a smooth transition along Manning Avenue, where they meet.
Burt downplayed any friction between suburban Woodbury its rural neighbor.
"For the most part, communities are able to do what they want to do and what works for them," Burt said. "Our plan in Woodbury is we will be fully developed. We are going to be different than Afton. We respect what Afton is and I think they respect what we are."
Enthusiastic Woodbury leaders toured the new Amazon facility last week, posing with managers for photos and observing workers start their shifts.
Burt said it's the third time she's toured the space, which is the 10th Amazon facility in Minnesota. Most are in other suburbs, including Shakopee, Brooklyn Park, Maple Grove and Lakeville. The Woodbury opening is happening amid reports of Amazon closing warehouses in other parts of the country.
In Woodbury, Amazon has hired 300 mostly part-time employees who work four-hour shifts starting at 3 p.m. and ending at 4:15 a.m. Workers must be 18 years old, but no high school degree is required. Wages start at $18 an hour.
Many workers are of Somali descent, so the facility includes signage in Somali as well as translation services. There are also prayer rooms and feet-washing stations needed for Muslim prayer — a nod to labor issues Amazon has encountered at other Minnesota sites.
Nationally and in the Twin Cities, the Seattle-based company has confronted a series of such issues. A national report released in December found that workers at Amazon's Minnesota warehouses experienced higher injury rates compared with other manufacturing jobs. Unionization efforts at several Amazon facilities across the country have been contentious, with union leaders alleging interference and intimidation.
None of those issued were raised on Thursday's tour.
Amazon site manager Katie Riegelman described ways the company works with employees, from stretching routines at the start of shifts and ongoing safety training to educational support including GED courses and prepaid college tuition.
"We want to be a shining example of safety, excellence and community engagement," said Riegelman, explaining that Amazon's Woodbury site has adopted a lighthouse logo.
At the sort facility, employees wearing vests and gloves unload tractor-trailers, and incoming packages are placed onto large conveyor belts. Another group of employees sorts the packages by ZIP codes and bundles them on pallets, which are then taken to local post offices for final delivery.
"It's a very hands-on process," Riegelman said.
The ground floor is 525,000 square feet, but a mezzanine level adds another 330,000 square feet. The mezzanine is not currently in use, but eventually robots and other automation on the upper level will be part of the sorting process, Riegelman said. Dozens of spiral-shaped ramps that resemble children's slides connect the two levels.
Amazon spokesman Scott Seroka said the facility's workforce is coming from local communities including Woodbury, but didn't provide specifics.
Riegelman, who has previously worked at other Amazon warehouses in the Twin Cities, said she knows the area well.
"I am homegrown. I was born and raised in Red Wing," she said. "We feel like we are at home and have been very welcomed by the city and the community."