With traces of history, signs of growth and high hopes for tomorrow, the Northern Pacific Center is rooted in Brainerd’s past, present and future.
“One of the reasons that we picked this area is we were able to simultaneously be a part of Brainerd’s history and a part of Brainerd’s future.”
Mark Lelwica’s reasoning for placing his brewery in Brainerd’s historic Northern Pacific Center seems to encapsulate the feelings of all those involved with the unique locale.
The expansive site on the southeast side of Brainerd was the city’s central hub when the Northern Pacific Railroad set up shop in 1871 with brand new buildings and freshly laid train tracks.
Today, the railway at the Northern Pacific Center no longer operates, and the aged brick structures instead house more than a dozen businesses, including event spaces, photography studios and offices, while traces of tracks, reminiscent of the city’s industrious past, remain.
In the future, site owners picture a plethora of shops, eateries, entertainment spaces and hopefully even a hotel built into the existing facilities, revamping the use but playing off and paying tribute to the once vital railroad industry.
“We want to keep the aesthetics of the buildings, so we’re trying to bring in businesses that like what we have to offer without modernizing them too much,” Northern Pacific Center owner Sharon Higgins said, noting she wants to create a feeling of family.
Roundhouse Brewery already fits that bill.
“I love the brick and the concrete and the history that goes with it. It has a very industrial feel to it,” Lelwica said of the brewery he co-founded in 2016.
Contrasted with the woods and water theme more often seen throughout the lakes area, Lelwica likes that he has a unique space with exposed brick and metal furnishings.
History and ambience played a role in Brian DeRosier’s choice of the Northern Pacific Center for his business as well, but on a more personal note.
“My father was a 42-year railroad man,” said DeRosier, president of DeRosier & Associates financial planning firm.
“I’m also kind of a history buff,” he added, “so I like this historic feel of the building and the old custom cabinets. It’s just a really cool space.”
Housed in the Northern Pacific Center’s clock tower building since 2011, DeRosier enjoys a bigger, quieter and more visually interesting space than he previously inhabited on Washington Street.
“Every once in awhile you get a train going through, but for the most part it’s really peaceful.”
A lot of DeRosier’s clients, he said, also have an uncle, grandfather or some family member who worked on the railroad years ago, too.
“And we actually polled some of our clients before we moved out here,” he said, noting they highly approved of the change.
And for artist Pete Driessen, the Northern Pacific Center’s combined historical, cultural and natural charms make it the Spoonbridge and Cherry of Brainerd, as he compared it to the iconic artwork in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
“I like the rawness and the -- just the sheer sense of industrial size and speciality here,” he said while working in one of the site’s buildings, which he’s grateful to call a temporary studio after so many childhood summers of passing by while at the family’s vacation home on Gull Lake.
While he also keeps a studio in Minneapolis, nothing compares to the vast expanses of the Northern Pacific Center.
“It’s kind of sculptor’s dream site,” he said. “The size, the space, the connection to the earth here -- all the buildings being made from Minnesota earth and clay from various parts of Minnesota throughout the years. The architecture really lends itself well to doing artistic projects.”
Driessen’s current project, a wooden scale model of the Northern Pacific Center’s original roundhouse, is a testament to his affection for the place.
“It’s looking at the old images from the county museum downtown as well as other images and then also abstracting those and kind of developing what could go out onto the complex there in kind of pie wedge shape,” Driessen said, explaining he wants to give people the feeling of an authentic roundhouse, which was a circular building with a turntable in the center to service and turn locomotives.
When his Minnesota State Arts Board funded project goes on exhibition, likely in September or October, Driessen hopes it can be an agent of community togetherness by employing other local artists and businesses to provide setup, supplies, audio/visual effects and other components to bring the piece alive and simultaneously support the local economy.
“So then it’s not just the object that’s built by one person,” he said, noting his finished product isn’t the sole outcome of the state grant dollars.
“It’s really not,” he said. “It’s the whole makeup of everything that goes into that.”
That seamless unity is also one of Higgins’ goals for the property, which she and husband, Mike -- who owns the Brainerd Industrial Center, the former paper mill, in northeast Brainerd -- just purchased from Dave Hutton in February.
While weddings and events seemingly dominate the Northern Pacific Center’s business right now, Higgins hopes to turn it into a campus-like site, a miniature community of sorts with something for everyone.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here, a lot of unfinished buildings and stuff we can look into,” she said. “What can we create and what can do here?”
When guests come for weddings, she wants them to be able to shop, get coffee, go for a drink or find any other number of ways to entertain themselves during down time.
“We don’t want any franchises,” she clarified. “We want the personal touch.”
Big box stores and industrial businesses are a no for Higgins, who wants small, locally owned additions for her prized property.
“Sharon, as a new owner, is very particular in building the community, basically the small city within the city, and making sure that the tenants and our local businesses go in the right direction,” said Aimee Jobe, operator of the NP Event Space.
“Obviously the event business is a major part of the property,” Jobe added. “And making sure that everyone commingles and the businesses all support each other is a really important part of their own independent economy onsite.”
Planned newcomers for the Northern Pacific Center include Loco Express -- a coffee shop set to open in a few months -- and a Tex-Mex restaurant envisioned to start up early next year.
Also coming soon is the Brainerd Exchange, a new 40,000-square-foot event/convention center. With the ability to house larger crowds than any of the property’s existing three event venues, plans for the Brainerd Exchange include a fitness center -- complete with a gym, massage parlor and hair studio to pamper a bride on the morning of her wedding -- and additional 40,000 square feet of adjacent space coming later to expand the capacity even more.
The Brainerd Exchange is a joint project of Higgins and Jobe, who also owns a photography studio in the Northern Pacific Center, along with managing the NP Event Space since its opening in 2014.
The Exchange’s first official booking is an agate show in January, but a couple soft openings are planned before then, Higgins said, including some events during Brainerd History Week Sept. 20-22.
The women’s other joint venture is Farmhouse Foundry, a business they opened recently to rent out Northern Pacific Center chairs, tables and other event equipment after they realized their items were in high demand.
Both modern and vintage styles of upholstered furniture are available for rent, too.
The foundry also offers all sorts of custom-built items, like floors for outdoor venues or room dividers and decorative walls to hide bathrooms and Porta Potties during special events.
In the future, after all the furniture is nicely displayed, Jobe and Higgins plan to offer up Farmhouse Foundry as an event venue, allowing renters to pick out whatever furniture and fixtures they’d like to use.
Right now, the NP Event Space, Luminary Fern and Storehouse serve as the Northern Pacific Center’s event spaces, each offering a different experience for guests.
Jobe estimates about 90% of wedding parties come from out of town, as do their guests, meaning the future plans for the NP Center need to cater to both local and out-of-town demographics.
For the out-of-towners, the need is things to do in between wedding ceremonies and receptions, and possibly an onsite hotel in the future.
“With 90% of our weddings being from out of town, they’ve got to lay their heads somewhere,” Higgins said, noting a hotel would likely be quite a few years down the road.
For locals, Higgins wants to create more sources of entertainment in the winter, when there are fewer things to do in the lakes area. Last year, the NP Center had a couple markets with various artist vendors selling their wares. This year, she hopes to do at least one of those a month in the winter.
Along with showcasing artists during markets, Higgins and Jobe may look to give local entrepreneurs the opportunity to rent temporary space on the property, giving them a storefront for a time so they can sell their goods and promote their businesses.
“These guys being entrepreneurs themselves have a place in their heart for that,” said Derek Owen, public relations and marketing director for the NP Center, noting the women’s goal is to help others get their feet wet in the business world.
Higgins put in a bid for the Northern Pacific Center to be home to Region Five’s planned children’s museum as well, but has not yet heard back on a decision.
In the meantime, one of the biggest projects Higgins and Jobe are tasked with is getting the word out about the activity going on at the Northern Pacific Center to mitigate vandalism and make sure people know it’s not an abandoned site.
“People still think it’s abandoned,” Jobe said of the property. “Or a lot of people think the property’s owned by the railroad or it’s owned by the city or it’s just a defunct place, and they don’t sit down and comprehend that there’s businesses.”
One idea they have to accomplish that goal is putting up wooden railroad men around the property to spruce up the site and add fun, inviting visuals for passersby.
Businesses at the NP Center
Right now, 17 tenants call the Northern Pacific Center home:
3 Cheers Hospitality.
Aimee Jobe Photography.
CWA Local 7212.
DeRosier & Associates.
Good Samaritan Church.
NP Event Space.
Pete Driessen, artist.
Progressive Property Management.
Studio 211, LLP.
Studio North Photography.
For Your Info
Business: Northern Pacific Center.
Number of employees: Six full time, 10-12 part time.
Interesting fact: The Northern Pacific Center opened as the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1871 and eventually turned into BNSF Railway. Brainerd township was founded in 1870 when the Northern Pacific survey determined that the crossing of the Mississippi should be here.