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Development strategy tweaked for Cottage Grove drive-in theater site

Cottage Grove has shifted its focus from seeking a developer to build out, all at once, a large retail development on the Cottage View Drive-In theater site.

Instead, officials are broadening their vision for the site that sits beside Highway 61, with the Cottage Grove Economic Development Authority and city staff saying they're willing to allow the plat's 90-plus acres to be developed piece by piece rather than in one fell swoop. By allowing that approach, they hope to speed development of some of the city's best commercial real estate.

The city has targeted landing a large commercial development like the one proposed by developers in 2007, with an anchor big-box retailer and numerous other shops and restaurants.

"Every retailer we talk to says the days of buying the full 90 acres and staging the development over five years, that's gone," said Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey.

Cottage Grove included that type of large-scale development on the site in its exhaustive master plan for the area completed before the housing downturn and economic meltdown that began in 2007.

But now, city officials say, more flexibility is needed to attract interest from developers.

"In the current marketplace, that is not as likely to happen," said City Administrator Ryan Schroeder. "So, really, the conversation is: 'Is it reasonable to still master plan the site but to allow for a single user, or maybe just a few users to develop the site, and then allow for the balance of the site to be developed later?'"

"I think there's some appetite for that" from the EDA and the development community, he added.

To do that, the city needs the cooperation of Gerry Herringer, the Columbia Heights businessman who has owned the drive-in theater and its 50-plus acres since 1966. Herringer said recently he is "anxious to see it sold," and willing to listen to the city and to developers about developing the site piece by piece.

"I'm open to just about anything that would move the project along," he said.

Interest from developers in the Cottage View site has remained strong, Bailey said. And, Herringer said: "There probably isn't a major development company in the Twin Cities ... that isn't aware of the property."

The drive-in owner said he doesn't foresee a sale of the land coming in the near future -- though Bailey said he remains extremely optimistic that a deal for the site could come this year.

All that is likely worrying to fans of the 45-year-old drive-in theater. Mann Theaters, the company that operates the theater, has said in the past it is interested in running the Cottage View as long as Herringer wants to keep it open for business.

Herringer said last week he hadn't yet spoken with Mann Theaters about the 2011 season, but would do so in March.