Minnesota convention center to replace feed mill
ST PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Every Saturday, Houle's Feed Store employee A.J. Fetterly removes the giant whiteboard behind the counter and updates the prices of the 46 listed items.
Dog food, deer pellets, horse feed, chicken feed and wild bird seed are on the board at the Forest Lake store, along with hog starter and finisher, goat feed, whole oats, alfalfa pellets, dry molasses, equine senior, and turkey starter and grower.
Another 100 items are listed on sheets of paper displayed under the glass counter, and Fetterly updates those as well. Prices fluctuate depending on the cost of corn and other ingredients, she said to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
But not every item is listed. Need llama food? Houle's has it. Koi pond nuggets? Those, too.
The store even sells food for gorillas, snakes, giraffes, monkeys, chinchillas and zebras; one of its biggest customers is the Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul.
"It's like when you go to Cub Foods, and you want to buy oatmeal," said Jim Houle, one of the store's co-owners. "How many kinds of oatmeal do you see? It's kind of like that here. You want horse feed, but there's 25 different varieties because everybody wants a certain thing."
Everybody will have to find that certain thing elsewhere, from now on, because the Cub Foods for critters will soon be shutting down.
The business, started as a feed mill by E.J. Houle in 1916, is for sale. A development company wants to buy Houle's and replace it with a 100-room hotel and convention center.
"It's a bittersweet time," said Gary Houle, 74, the store's general manager and grandson of E.J. Houle. "Our name has been on the building for a long time. It's hard to think about not coming to work in the morning. My dad worked here until he was 81."
The five Houle siblings — brothers Jim, Gary, Jeff and Greg and sister Mary Koski — also have decided to sell Houle's Farm, Garden & Pet store on Minnesota 36 in Grant.
"We can't continue the business," Gary Houle said. "The land is too expensive. We have 3.2 acres (in Forest Lake), and that's about 2.2 more than we need to operate, so it's not going to work to sell the business and keep it as a business here."
The Houles, who live near one another in Stacy, came close to selling before, but the deal fell through when the recession hit in 2008.
Dallas-based Gatehouse Capital approached the family last year with a plan to tear down the existing mill and elevator at the southwest corner of Broadway Avenue and Lake Street and build a convention center, hotel, bar and restaurant.
"We've had quite a few offers, but this was the first one we could feel good about because it can potentially give back to the community for many years," Houle said. "It should drive the economic growth of the area."
Gatehouse and the Houle family will present their plans to the city's Economic Development Authority during a workshop on Jan. 28; no vote will be taken.
The Houle buildings are popular backdrops for senior, engagement and prom photos. The blackboard on the side of the original building often notes wedding dates and senior class years.
"Houle's is 100 percent part of the landscape of Forest Lake," said Bob Muske, the agent at Re/Max who has the listing. "It's hard for people who have appreciated those structures to imagine someday that they won't be there."
The property is listed for $1.75 million.
"It's very important to the Houle family that they pass the baton on," Muske said. "They realize that the highest and best use is no longer what it is — the buildings are old and need a significant amount of work."
David-Elias Rachie, a developer with Gatehouse Capital, said his company will need the city's help to make the project feasible.
According to information submitted to the EDA recently, Gatehouse is asking the city for several financial incentives, including waiving permit fees and instituting a lodging tax to pay for the conference center.
Rachie, who lives in Forest Lake, said the city lacks sufficient hotel and event space to host large weddings, sports tournaments and conventions.
"People are forced to go out of town to find a place large enough," he said.
The project, which would include a rooftop bar and restaurant with lake views, also would help revitalize downtown and attract new businesses, he said.
"We want it to be something that helps Forest Lake," Rachie said, mentioning that businesses appreciate having nearby hotel rooms for vendors and potential employees.
"Employers really like these developments," he said. "This is one of those facilities you have to have in a community."
Mayor Mara Bain said the project is an amazing opportunity.
"This is our once-in-a-hundred-year opportunity to transform this iconic property," she said. "I look forward to working with a potential new buyer to determine the appropriate seat for the city to take at the table."
Bain said she would support a citywide lodging tax that would help tourism and economic development throughout the city — not just the Houle project.
Houle's has survived for 103 years by adapting to the times.
In the early days, it served farmers by selling oats and hay for their horses and grinding feed. Jim Houle, 76, said the farmers gathered around the wood stove talking in German, French and Swedish as they waited for their orders.
"This place used to be more of a meeting place," he said. "It took a long time to get your feed done."
The number of turkey farms in the Forest Lake area boomed in the 1950s, and Houle's provided the feed, he said.
When Interstate 35 was built in the 1960s and the turkey farms gave way to horse farms and hobby farms, Houle's changed its inventory, Gary Houle said. "Instead of having 30 or 40 or 50 farm customers, we had 75 to 100 to 200 hobby farms," he said.
Houle's also owned and operated a dog-food manufacturing plant in Stacy, Minn.; it was destroyed by fire in 1982.
The family decided to start phasing out milling on site about 10 years ago and stopped entirely five years ago, Gary Houle said.
"The equipment was outdated," he said. "It would have cost more to reinvest and upgrade than we would have gotten out of it in our work lives."
Backyard chickens now rule the roost. "We sell more chickens in a year than we did in 1970, when we actually had farms here," Gary Houle said. "We sell 11,000 to 12,000 chickens a year, and almost all of those are sold in lots of five, six, seven or eight or less, sometimes just one or two."
Rachel Cina of Forest Lake bought her family's five chickens at Houle's. She was back recently with her two young sons to buy a bag of layer feed — a mixture of calcium, corn and oats.
"Oh, no," she said, when she found out Houle's would be closing. "That means we'll have to go all the way to Hugo."
Como Zoo also will have to find another supplier; Houle's has been delivering feed there once a week for decades, said Matt Reinartz, a spokesman for the zoo.
"They were a one-stop shop," Reinartz said. "I imagine now we will be expanding out to many vendors to supply what just Houle's supplied to us. That was a great thing about Houle's: they had the capability to deliver huge amounts of stuff to us, right to our door every week. They knew our needs better than anyone."
One of the store's biggest sellers is Dave's Deer Mix, a 50-pound bag of corn oats, protein pellets and molasses that sells for $10.50.
It's what Karla Wiessner came in to buy recently for Anderson Iris Gardens, a commercial plant grower in Forest Lake.
"We feed a herd. We feed all the deer in Forest Lake," Wiessner joked.
Out in the warehouse, which still features the doors built by his grandfather in 1916, Jim Houle filled a brown feed bag with scratch feed, a mixture designed for pretty much any kind of poultry.
"It's time," Houle said, as he looked around the unheated wooden building dotted with cobwebs. "It's got to happen."
Behind his desk in the back of the store, Gary Houle said he would miss coming to work every day and seeing his employees and customers.
"We have had really good relationships over the years, so that will be hard, but at the same time, we have to make that move," he said. "This is a nice way to do it because the project is so enticing that it makes me feel good about leaving. It's not another set of condos, so it's a good deal."