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Some St. Paul and Ramsey County leaders say they were shocked to learn of state plans for an emergency COVID-19 morgue in one of the capital city’s poorest neighborhoods, where anxious residents have already dubbed the site “the valley of death.”

Minnesota bought the former Bix Produce Co. cold storage facility in the North End neighborhood for $5.5 million this month and may store up to 5,100 bodies there as the pandemic peaks. Some elected officials and community members say they learned about the state’s plans from news reports and are worried about the social and economic implications of placing a morgue in an already vulnerable area.

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“I know COVID-19, no one was really expecting this,” said Thomas Berry, a community organizer who works in the North End. “But there has to be a level of transparency when you’re spending taxpayer dollars, one, and then two, when you possibly are putting taxpayers at risk.”

In an e-mail, Department of Administration Assistant Commissioner Curt Yoakum said the building purchase “is part of state and local coordination in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.” St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office was notified before closing, he said.

Elected officials who represent the North End said it makes sense that the state’s search for an emergency morgue space would lead to the former Bix facility — the building is vacant, refrigerated and close to downtown St. Paul.

But they said it’s a particularly tough blow for the neighborhood, where two-thirds of residents are people of color and nearly half of households earn less than $35,000 a year, according to demographic data from Minnesota Compass.

Residents are worried about the possibility of the virus spreading from the building, and some have expressed religious concerns, Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said.

“Once this was announced, the community dubbed this area ‘the valley of death,’ ” she said. “It’s a very impoverished area. The businesses have kind of collapsed. There’s a junk yard on one side, public housing across the street — and so now to bring bodies there just adds to that.”

It’s unclear what will happen to the site once it’s no longer needed as a morgue, MatasCastillo said.

The city, county and St. Paul Port Authority have been eyeing the area for potential redevelopment that would include housing and jobs, she said. Now, that future is uncertain.

For St. Paul, which is facing a multimillion-dollar 2020 budget deficit because of COVID-19, the building sale to the state also means the loss of a valuable industrial tax base.

The city has already been tapped to host the primary hospital for COVID-19 patients and asked to find alternative care sites, while also bearing the responsibility for a large unsheltered homeless population — and so far, there has been no federal stimulus money to help pay for it, said City Council President Amy Brendmoen.

City and county officials are working together to figure out next steps, Brendmoen said. Council Member Dai Thao said his office drafted a letter to Gov. Tim Walz, asking him to reconsider.

The county, which recently bought and retrofitted tractor trailers for body storage, is trying to come up with alternatives that it can present to the state, MatasCastillo said.

“We’re considering our options,” Brendmoen said. “But in the state of peacetime emergency, there’s probably a limit to what we can prevent from happening.”

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509