A new home for Orchestra Hall

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March 11, 2013 // UPDATED 1:16 pm - March 12, 2013
By: Mike Munzenrider
Mike Munzenrider
Despite stalled contract negotiations for musicians, renovations at the performance space are moving ahead.

The construction at Orchestra Hall crowds onto South 11th Street in downtown Minneapolis — transforming the once familiar concert venue, with its blue glass façade and big blue pipes, into a confusion of white tarps, particle-board and cranes.

While the Minnesota Orchestra is at an impasse with management and musicians over a new collective bargaining agreement, the Orchestra Hall renovation is moving ahead and on pace to be done this summer.

The $50 million renovation, which started last June, is set to update and improve the performance space’s auditorium and the hall’s lobby area.

Construction is scheduled to be complete in July, before finishing touches will be completed for the start of the next concert season. This year, concerts have been cancelled through April 7 because of the ongoing labor dispute.

“The project remains on schedule and remains on budget,” said Michael Henson, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra Association.

Originally slated to be a $160 million reconstruction project, Henson said the project’s budget was scaled down incrementally by tens of millions of dollars, until it was $60 million near the end of 2007 when he took over as president and CEO.

The 2008 recession scaled it down further to the current $50 million price tag.

Renovation funds are a part of a $110 million campaign that began in 2005. This fund contributes to renovations as well as the organization’s legacy funds, while also serving to help pay musicians and fund touring and recording.

Henson said that while the auditorium at Orchestra Hall was built to last 200 years, the lobby was built to last 20 years and has been in use for 40. He said the renovation aims to benefit audiences, musicians and the hall.

“We’re doubling the lobby space to actually reflect the size of the audience,” Henson said, noting the former lobby could hold around 800 people, about one third of the hall’s capacity.

“We are also replacing all the seating in the auditorium, all the flooring in the auditorium, all the flooring on the stage, updating the acoustics and updating musicians’ practice rooms,” he said.

Orchestra Hall continues to face financial difficulties, including the ongoing labor dispute with musicians that has resulted in a lockout. Henson said he hopes the hall’s update will benefit the organization in the long term.

“The refurbished hall will let us generate more money through rental income and sales of food and drink,” he said. “It will be a more attractive venue.”

The lockout

Seeking a savings of $5 million annually following contract talks that started in April 2012, the orchestra’s board of directors offered a contract to musicians that would have cut salary and benefits by an average of 32 percent.

Musicians rejected the management offer — resulting in the lockout that went into effect Oct. 1, 2012.

Because of the lockout, the Minnesota Orchestra cancelled successive blocks of shows. At this point, six months of shows have been cancelled or rescheduled and Orchestra Hall.

The labor dispute is an increasingly thorny issue, which both management and musicians are reluctant to discuss.

On March 7, 100 DFL legislators signed onto a request to the state Office of the Legislative Auditor to audit the books of the Minnesota Orchestra Association.

Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-63A) spearheaded the move to audit, citing the state’s contribution of $14 million in bonding and $1 million in Legacy funds to the Minnesota Orchestra.

“The state of Minnesota invested in a world class orchestra, and the ongoing lockout threatens the value of that investment,” Davnie said.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-52A) said that while James Noble, the Legislative Auditor, is not required to take up the request, Hansen said, “I believe he will.”

Davnie said that beyond protecting the state’s investment, he thinks an independent, third party look at the orchestra’s books will ease the labor impasse, and “break through the logjam.”

“Hopefully it’ll get the board and other people to the table and get our orchestra playing again,” Davnie said.

Meet Minneapolis estimates that downtown businesses will lose $1.9 million in revenue through April 7, the date of the last cancelled concert because of the lockout — $1.2 million of that estimate is lost dining revenue, based on the idea that half of all concertgoers will dine out as well.

However, on Nicollet Mall and at the many bars and restaurants that benefit from business-as-usual at nearby Orchestra Hall, the affects of the lockout and renovation have been mixed.

From the ground floor barroom at Brit’s Pub and Eating Establishment there’s a clear view of Orchestra Hall, which is less than a block away. Shane Higgins, Brit’s general manager, said that while he misses the extra concert business on “cold Wednesday nights,” overall, the lack of shows has meant no negative impact to the pub.

“We’ve not been hurt,” he said.

Higgins said business is up relative to last year, which he credited to events at Brit’s like Downton Abbey viewing parties and private holiday events. Without taking sides, he said he hopes the orchestra board and musicians can come to an agreement, soon.

On the other hand, at Masa, which is essentially kitty-corner to Orchestra Hall, business is down significantly.

“We’ve lost about $45,000 in sales since the lockout began,” Michelle Hummer, the general manager at Masa, said. “You can’t plan around that.”

Hummer said the loss of revenue has forced her to lay off staff and reduce hours for others. Because of the reduction in hours for some, she said she’s lost longtime employees to other restaurants. Still, Hummer said, many employees at Masa have “rode the weather” of the slump in business.

Hummer said that Orchestra Hall is an important draw to the city center.

“We need people to keep coming downtown instead of staying in the ‘burbs.”

While she hopes that “we will have a season to look forward to,” Hummer’s current outlook is a bit grim.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel right now,” she said. “It’s a waiting game.”

At the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, business has largely been unaffected by the lack of Orchestra Hall traffic.

Dan Eikmeier, who handles artist and media relations at the Dakota, said “the crossover is minimal enough,” in terms of the jazz club’s regular crowd and those who prefer the orchestra, that they have only seen a slight dip in business on weekend nights after 10 p.m.

The Dakota has hosted two shows that were originally scheduled for Orchestra Hall but cancelled because of the lock out. It will host a third, Max Raabe & Palast Orchestra, April 7.

“[Orchestra Hall is] being really good to the artists and pushing them over here,” Eikmeier said.

Plans for a new Peavey Plaza in limbo

Plans to renovate Peavey Plaza, which shares the same block as Orchestra Hall, have been stalled by litigation.

Two groups, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and the Cultural Landscape Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., are suing the City of Minneapolis to block the reconstruction.

Peavey Plaza, which the city described as “40 years old, badly deteriorated and difficult to maintain,” in a document detailing the renovation plan, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in January. The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota pushed for the listing, further complicating the estimated $10 million project, which was originally expected to be completed late this year.

Matt Laible, a city spokesman, said work continues to secure funds for the project, which is now in limbo.

“There is no timeline specifically set right now for next steps,” Liable said. "With the legal action that’s going on the parties are discussing potential avenues to resolve that and those talks are ongoing. For the moment we’re just continuing to work with the parties involved and working towards a resolution.”