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For 128 years, South St. Paul was all about meat. The cattle industry formed the city and provided jobs for residents, a signature stench and a high school team name: the Packers.

Then in 2008, the stockyards, once one of the nation’s largest, closed. The last meatpacker shut down in July, leaving the city with a depleted tax base and an identity crisis.

“We knew who we were before. We were Cow Town,” Mayor Beth Baumann said. “We need to decide who we are, and who we want to be when we grow up.”

The city is trying to reinvent itself. Its bleak retail center is getting a face-lift with a $1.1 million boost from the state. The growing business park that replaced the stockyards is attracting employees, and officials are grasping for ways to get them to spend money in South St. Paul.

Despite the efforts, the city is one of the poorest suburbs in the metro area — median household income is $54,065 — and it’s littered with empty storefronts.

Frustrated residents and business owners, like Steve Mankowski, said officials are not doing enough to reinvigorate the city of 20,000.

“It’s embarrassing,” said Mankowski, who grew up a block away from the car repair store he now owns on Southview Boulevard, the street South St. Paul residents call their mini downtown.

He watched a boom town become a “bedroom community,” while other suburbs expanded.

“If you were here 40 years ago, it’s totally changed,” he said, pausing to think of exactly how to describe what South St. Paul has become. “From a Cow Town to — nothing. They don’t know yet, I guess.”

Revitalizing the city core

The city’s small Southview-Marie business district, ensconced in tightly packed homes on a hill overlooking the Mississippi, needs destination attractions, residents said.

One person suggested a high-end décor store, another an eye clinic, many want more restaurants. People have tried cutesy places, like an ice cream shop and craft store, Baumann said. They haven’t made it.

“We’re not there yet,” she said, though plans for change are underway.

South St. Paul got $1.1 million from the state to spruce up storefronts and create a business incubator on the street, which could house start-ups and tiny companies.

Before her term ends next year, the mayor said she wants to use some of the money to fix and sell the property where Big John’s bar once stood. The blighted corner is in the heart of Southview-Marie.

“It was run down, it annoyed people. It will be a symbol of something new,” she said.

The city is also in the midst of planning an overhaul of the Southview Boulevard, including new sidewalks, streetlights, signs and decorative additions like flower baskets or monuments. Officials want to give the nondescript city center — a mix of offices, shops and empty lots — a sense of place.

When they recently presented the changes to business owners, people said they liked the idea of dressing up the old city. But they were doubtful it would change much.

“It’s not a Grand Avenue. It’s a grand idea,” said Greg Bauer, who owns properties in Southview. People do not stroll along checking out the area, he said. Shoppers come for a specific business, if they come at all.

South St. Paul is a city where the collective memory is great. People dwell on past heydays and losses, like when the city tore down historic buildings in the 1970s or put railroad tracks along the river, cutting off any hope for a riverfront scene like Stillwater’s.

There are a lot of theories about why the city has struggled in the wake of the cattle industry’s departure.

Local historian Lois Glewwe blames the stink — well, at least a little.

While many called the smell of meat processing “the smell of money,” it was also a source of embarrassment. Other schools would mock South St. Paul students and yell “Pee-yew,” Glewwe said.

She thinks the lingering psychological impacts of those taunts hurt businesses today.

“It made people defensive and fearful of outsiders. You can’t make a living in a town that doesn’t support you because they don’t trust you,” Glewwe said.

Though, she acknowledged, there’s much more at play.

The tucked-away location of Southview-Marie means businesses there rely on residents. But many of them bypass places like the local market in search of better deals at the Cub Foods in West St. Paul.

And the city’s population has shifted as former working-class stockyard employees sold small, older homes to poorer residents.

Disjointed development

Branna Lindell, a Chicago native who is the head of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority, has two words for the residents stuck in the past: “Move on.”

Over the past decade, she has focused on replacing the stockyards with businesses including Twin City Bagel and American Bottling Company. On average, 4,000 people work in the area now called BridgePoint Businesses Park. It’s less than half as many people as the stockyards employed, but more than the city has seen in decades.

However, residents often do not realize people work there, Baumann said.

BridgePoint workers rarely travel up the hill that divides them from the Southview-Marie neighborhood, said Joel Hanson, who manages the Coop restaurant on Southview Boulevard.

At the base of the hill, what was once the jam-packed Concord Street business district now offers little for employees at the burgeoning business park. A couple fast-food joints. A liquor store. A nightclub.

City officials know there’s a problem. Why would people stay in South St. Paul, when they can grab lunch and run errands in Woodbury?

But they have a shining beacon of change: Kwik Trip. The company plans to build a station on Concord Street this summer.

“It’s a nice first step,” Baumann said. “First of many.”

Jessie Van Berkel • 952-746-3280