Duluth Grill makes big Lincoln Park land moves

Duluth Grill Family of Restaurants co-owner Tom Hanson stands atop OMC Smokehouse. The former Kemps Dairy property and new parking lot are in the background. (Photos by Mark Nicklawske)

A popular Duluth restaurant group has acquired the largest piece of open land in the Lincoln Park business district and plans to build apartments, a parking garage and new street-level business space on the property — similar to plans announced by its previous owner.

The purchase is part of several big land moves revolving around the Duluth Grill Family of Restaurants.

Duluth Grill Family of Restaurants co-owner Tom Hanson said his organization bought the now vacant lot at 1926 W. First St. this past summer from Northridge Accommodations LLC, a hotel and apartment developer based in Grand Forks, N.D. St. Louis County property records list the sale price at $2 million.

Located behind the Hanson-owned OMC Smokehouse, the site housed dairy operations for decades before Kemps ended milk processing there in 2013. Northridge bought the blighted property for $450,000 in December 2019. The company later demolished the abandoned dairy buildings and removed contaminated soil but never presented a development plan.

“It just wasn’t in our short-term horizon. We were probably looking at at least three years out,” said Northridge President and CEO Jon Miskavige. “It was really kind of taking a back burner.”

Hanson said he decided to act when Northridge officials told him it might be two years before they would begin work on a project.

A 1.2 acre parcel of land sits vacant on West First St. in Lincoln Park. The property had served as a dairy operation for almost 75 years.

“I just kind of felt like it was going to be slow moving and it was going to look ugly,” said Hanson. “We talked internally and came back and said, ‘Would you ever consider selling it?’ They said they probably would so we jumped in.”

“It was just one of these scenarios that we never felt like we would be the developer, or long-term holder of the property, but we thought in the short term that it’s going to affect us in a negative way if it just sits there with a giant fence and undeveloped,” he said.

Miskavige said a Minneapolis developer was interested in the property but he decided to sell to the Hanson group. Northridge will use the money to complete a significant multi-family apartment project in Arizona.

“Tom’s a great neighbor with, I think, the best at heart for Lincoln Park in mind,” he said. “When he approached us, we were like: ‘He’s a great fit for it.’ They’ll represent the neighborhood.”

Hanson cleaned up the vacant property, planted grass and built a 58-space temporary parking lot. He said talks have started with prospective developers.

“I’ve had a number of people approach us and now there’s two big developers that are going on it,” he said. “There’s so many moving parts that you have to arrange before a deal is done.”

The redevelopment plan for the property includes 100 units of housing, a 170-space parking ramp and street level retail and office space. Construction could start as early as spring 2024. Northridge officials discussed a similar development in 2020.

Hanson said a locally controlled project will be better for Lincoln Park.

“Our thought is we have more insight as to what the neighborhood was and where it’s going,” he said. “There’s something about Lincoln Park that feels very organically constructed. Part of the nature of business and growth is the big box stores eventually find their way, but I think there’s a way that we can continue to have that craft district recognition … where people can live and thrive in that area.”

The historic Duluth Press building is west of OMC Smokehouse. It will be renovated and used as a nine-room vacation rental.

The Hanson restaurant group also purchased the former Duluth Press Building, a historic property to the west of OMC Smokehouse at 1915 W. Superior St. St. Louis County records show the three-story apartment building sold for $950,000 in January.

Hanson said his organization plans to renovate the property and create a nine-room vacation rental space. An application for the project is currently under review with construction set to begin this winter.

According to Perfect Duluth Day research, the 19th Century building opened as the Duluth Press headquarters in 1894. Funding for construction was provided by wild west showman Buffalo Bill Cody. Helen Cody Wetmore, Buffalo Bill’s sister, was married to newspaper owner Hugh Wetmore and served as its managing editor. At the time, the Duluth Press was the only newspaper in the city that owned its own offices. The weekly newspaper quickly fell on hard times, however, and its last issue was published on April 29, 1896.

Zenith City Online, a Duluth history website, notes the building was taken over by Star Publishing in 1897. A variety of small businesses operated out of street level space throughout the 20th Century while upper levels were used for apartments.

Hanson said a vacation rental space will serve as a base for tourists visiting Lincoln Park for its restaurants, breweries, shops and nearby outdoor activities. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Shocking, somewhat, to see what’s happening here. It’s also gratifying.”

Corktown Deli and Brews will relocate next to the Duluth Grill on 27th Avenue West.

In another move, the Duluth Grill Family of Restaurants is relocating Corktown Deli and Brews from a leased space in the Frost River Marketplace at 1906 W. Superior St. to the former Duluth Stove and Fireplace building next door to Duluth Grill. Hanson said his organization purchased and will renovate the property at 102 S. 27th Ave. W. Corktown will reopen in part of the building and another space will be leased for retail.

Further west, in a deal with links to the former Lincoln Park dairy building, Northridge purchased a property adjacent to the Duluth Heritage Sports Center at 3102 W. Michigan St. The developer paid $1.42 million for the land and 10,000-square-foot warehouse — currently home to Airgas, an industrial supply store with more than 900 locations around the world.

Airgas, an industrial supply store, is located just west of the Duluth Heritage Sports Center.

Northridge acquired the property in May, just a couple of months before closing on the former dairy building.

Miskavige said his company bought the Airgas building as a long-term corporate asset and it has no plans for the property. He said Airgas has approximately 10 years remaining on its lease.

“They’re a great long-term tenant,” he said. “It’s nothing other than traditional rental real estate. No development in play, nothing of that sort.”

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