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Real estate mogul Jim Crockarell, who expanded his St. Paul holdings through the decades to become the capital city's largest downtown property owner, died Thursday at age 79.

With his real estate development company Madison Equities, Crockarell grew his portfolio to include at least 32 buildings, including some of the most recognizable ones in the St. Paul skyline. In addition to prominent downtown office and apartment buildings — such as the First National Bank Building, U.S. Bank Center and Alliance Bank Center — his firm had a stake in multiple metro-area strip malls and downtown restaurants such as Handsome Hog, Ox Cart Ale House and Gray Duck Tavern.

"He enjoyed the art of the deal, and he enjoyed doing things to improve the city of St. Paul," said Carol March, Crockarell's daughter. "He spent a lot of time and energy trying to make downtown St. Paul a better place to live and work."

Crockarell, of North Oaks, died of sepsis, March said.

A Tennessee native, Crockarell moved to St. Paul in the 1970s to become vice president of planning at Ellerbe Becket Companies. His real estate acquisitions began in the 1980s, first with rental homes, then with strip malls. He bought his first downtown building in 1999.

"As someone who owns more than thirty buildings in our downtown core, Jim Crockarell played a visible role in our downtown landscape for more than 40 years and his passing most certainly will mark a pivotal change in that landscape," said B Kyle, president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber, in a statement. "Our sincere condolences are extended to his family and friends."

Crockarell was a complicated figure in the downtown ecosystem, at times embroiled in conflicts with the city, labor unions, the nonprofit St. Paul Downtown Alliance and other property owners. In recent years, Crockarell refused to join St. Paul's downtown improvement district, which assesses property owners to pay for street teams and other personnel who remove graffiti, pick up litter and boost security downtown. John Manillo, a longtime St. Paul developer, said Crockarell's lack of participation was disappointing, as "he could have helped himself and helped the city in general more than he did."

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit against Madison Equities last summer, alleging the company deprived security officers of pay and retaliated against a whistleblower. A Ramsey County District judge granted Madison Equities' motion to dismiss the lawsuit in November, and Ellison's office appealed that decision, according to Brian Evans, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. Because the lawsuit is against Madison Equities, not its owner, Crockarell's death will not affect it, Evans said.

However, Crockarell had been bullish about downtown's residential sector for years, leading conversions of old commercial buildings into apartments while preserving much of their historic charm and appeal.

"In St. Paul," Crockarell told the Star Tribune in 2016, "you can get your arms around the city."

Even after the pandemic upended downtowns across the country, he continued to bet on St. Paul: In 2022, he bought the troubled Capital City Plaza parking ramp and planned to build apartment units on top.

March, a broker and executive at Madison Equities, said her father was incredibly loyal to his friends and employees, many who have been with the firm for more than a decade.

"Jim Crockarell had a longstanding presence in downtown St. Paul," Downtown Alliance President Joe Spencer said in a statement. "My thoughts are with his family and loved ones at this time."

Crockarell's wife, Rosemary Kortgard, children, Rob Crockarell and March, and four grandchildren survive him. The family will hold a visitation from 5-7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Holcomb-Henry-Boom-Purcell Funeral Home in North Oaks and a viewing 10 a.m. Thursday at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, with services to follow at 11 a.m.

Star Tribune staff writer Jim Walsh contributed to this report.