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It's a deal -- the new Browns Creek State Trail, five years in the making, will be paved and ready for thousands of hikers and cyclists by early next summer.

The purchase of the 6.5-mile Minnesota Zephyr railbed from Stillwater west to Grant was sealed when Gov. Mark Dayton signed state bonding bills last week. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will begin removing rails and their supporting ties from the corridor by this fall, said Kent Skaar, an acquisitions specialist for the agency.

"At this point, nothing but excitement," Skaar said Friday. "We have to expect this to be one of the most heavily used features of the state trail system, period."

The state will fund all but $1 million of the $4.23 million price tag. The remainder will come from Washington County through its voter-approved Land and Water Legacy program.

For 23 years, the Zephyr dinner train followed the route until owner David Paradeau closed the business on New Year's Eve in 2008. The Zephyr, known for five-course candlelight dinners with cabaret singers strolling through five elegant dining cars, attracted more than 1 million customers.

"Wow, finally," Paradeau said of the approved sale. "It's over, supposedly, or darn close to it, and we're on our way, I guess. It's going to be in the public hands, and that's outstanding."

The deal doesn't include the Zephyr train, which still sits on a siding at the north end of downtown Stillwater. Paradeau said prospective buyers who want to start a dinner train business in Oregon toured the Zephyr on Thursday.

The depot building, built in 1993 and expanded in 2003, remains for sale as well. It housed a restaurant, gift shop and waiting room for Zephyr passengers.

The new state trail -- named after nearby Browns Creek -- could bring as many as 300,000 people into Stillwater each year by DNR projections, said Mayor Ken Harycki. "It really has the potential to redefine downtown," he said.

Harycki said he considered the trail second only to a new St. Croix River bridge when ranking important projects for downtown Stillwater.

The trail project fell into indecision in June when the governor vetoed a bill that contained the state's funding. Paradeau agreed to extend the purchase agreement through September in hopes that the state budget dispute would be resolved.

Ron Potter, policy and program manager for the DNR's parks and trails division, said Friday that the trail will be paved by next summer. The DNR will have to resolve the need for a bridge across busy Manning Avenue west of Stillwater, near where the new trail will connect with the existing Gateway State Trail, he said.

"We're going to move as quickly as we can," he said.

Residents will have plenty of opportunity to tell the DNR what they want from the new trail during a series of open houses that will be scheduled this year, Skaar said. He expects interest in parking lots, water fountains and paths for horses, among other input.

The trail can be used after rails are removed -- and even before paving -- but the railroad bridge over Hwy. 95 won't be ready until next spring, Skaar said.

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342 Twitter: @stribgiles