Lisa Van Horn is not being completely forthcoming with her friend and business partner, Jennifer Melecio.
Van Horn is withholding a few of the stories she's read and heard about the former Mississippi Belle Restaurant & Lounge in downtown Hastings.
"Some are frightening; some are kind of mischievous," she said of the tales of the restaurant's strange past, which includes reports of chairs moving out from tables, candles lighting by themselves and voices captured on audio by real-life ghostbusters.
This week, the two friends will open their first restaurant -- Bella Vista -- in the 1928 building that according to some former
Mississippi Belle patrons and employees was a hot spot for unexplained occurrences as much as a place to eat and drink.
Bella Vista, a new restaurant in Hastings, Thursday October 2, 2014, will open soon after a floor to ceiling renovation. Rumors of the building, formerly Mississippi Bella, being home to paranormal activity have swirled for years. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)
"I haven't completely told (Melecio) a lot of the stories because I don't want her to tell the employees," said Van Horn, of St. Paul. "No one wants to go downstairs already as it is."
She said that includes an electrician who was afraid to go down into the cold, dimly-lit basement alone recently because he was aware of the spooky stories.
Rumors of unexplained happenings in the building have been swirling for years.
Back in 2007, a group calling themselves the Hastings Paranormal Team did a series of investigations in the brick building, which sits on the site of one of the city's original structures -- a trading post built around 1850.
On its website, the group claims to have seen spirits through light anomalies in the basement and in banquet rooms; experienced sensations of being touched; and captured electronic voice phenomena.
Three years later, the Twin Cities Paranormal Society did its own investigation, with similar results.
They say a team member's shirt was tugged, a chair was moved away from a table and a small child's voice was caught on audio, among other bizarre events.
"TCPS believes there is paranormal activity at the location," the group's website reads, "but TCPS cannot say that this location is haunted."
The building has a colorful past. When prohibition ended, it became the Corner Bar, a rough-and-tumble riverside establishment. In 1942, according to the Hastings Star-Gazette, bar patron Clarence Niederkorn died there after being felled in a fight and hitting his head on the bar rail.
"Rumors of another death in what some consider a haunted basement persist to this day," the Star-Gazette reported in 2004.
In the 1970s, a committee of city residents successfully put the building and several others along Second Street on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building's former owners, Bill Kopp and Hope Remley, insist something is just not right with the place. They still maintain having seen heavy doors close by themselves, forks fly off tables, wine glasses move across tabletops and candles light by themselves.
"There were things that happened that you couldn't explain away," Remley said last week. "Do I think the place was haunted? I don't know? Do I think weird things happened? Yes. I saw them with my own eyes."
For the record, Melecio and Van Horn haven't seen or experienced anything out of the ordinary since they began renovating the building after their other business partner, Steve Sawitzke, bought it in December.
But that's not to say they aren't taking precautions.
"We had this door removed because we heard a story about a waitress getting trapped down here," Van Horn said during a tour of the building's basement last week.
Melecio is more of a skeptic.
"Lisa believes in this," said Melecio, of Hastings. "You do turn on lights. But I'm not scared something is going to happen."
They chalk up some of the building's creepiness to its long history and rough shape when they took it over. It had sat empty for four years.
"It was cold, dark and it smelled, and there were weird noises from old pipes or whatever," Van Horn said. "It was very intimidating, frightening. Now we've been here so often and have done so much to it that I feel comfortable. It feels warm in here.
Bella Vista's new owners Jennifer Melecio, left, and Lisa Van Horn unpack colorful booster chairs Thursday, October 2, 2014, in preparation for their restaurant in Hastings opening soon. There has been a complete, floor to ceiling renovation of the restaurant. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)
One of the first things that contractors did was install big bay windows. From the inside, they showcase a view of the Mississippi River, the new bridge and Dakota County's original courthouse -- an Italian Villa-style architectural gem that was built in 1871 and has been Hastings City Hall since 1993.
The windows also gave Melecio and Van Horn the restaurant's name they were searching for: Bella Vista means beautiful view in Italian.
"We're blessed with this location," said Melecio, who met Van Horn at La Grolla, a St. Paul neighborhood restaurant where they were servers.
Now, it's not uncommon for downtown visitors to peek in through the windows to check out the new digs, she said.
"It seems everyone in town has worked in this building at one time or another or has a story about it," Van Horn said.
Sawitzke remembers as a child hearing about the Mississippi Belle's reputation as the place to travel for good food.
"It was a regional destination," he said.
He learned about the building's strange history only after his son looked it up online.
"We had already closed on the sale," Sawitzke, of Hastings, said, then laughed.
He said he's sure that Melecio and Van Horn, who have 45 years of combined restaurant experience, can handle their first foray in running their own restaurant -- ghosts or not.
Remley is not particularly concerned for the new owners, either.
"I don't think they'll really have to look over their shoulder or anything like that," she said. "They just need to know that it has a lot of character."