Community notebook: Block E casino plan lives on

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February 27, 2012
By: Jeremy Zoss, Michelle Bruch and Dylan Thomas
Jeremy Zoss, Michelle Bruch and Dylan Thomas
HENNEPIN — Despite the recent reveal of a “Plan B” for the property, Block E owners Alatus are still pursuing the plan to redevelop the site into a state-run downtown casino.

The plan recently gained some momentum when it was proposed as a potential funding mechanism for a new Vikings stadium. A Vikings stadium plan was expected shortly after this issue went to press, and sources involved with the negotiations told The Journal that the Block E casino was not part of the funding solution. Nevertheless, Alatus principle Bob Lux said he intends to continue working on the plan.

“When they listen to the benefits, it’s pretty difficult for anyone to not like what we’re doing,” Lux said.

Lux has been touting some very strong figures since the plan was revealed in May 2011. Alatus hired research firm The Innovation Group to conduct a study of the effects of a downtown casino, which found that the project would create a variety of economic benefits.

The study found that a casino would draw 5.6 million visitors per year, more than Target Field and Target Center combined. It would increase hotel room stays by 84,000 per year, bring 35 to 40 new shows to surrounding venues and increase spending at nearby restaurants and retail by $21 million annually. The city would see annual payments of $12.5 million and one-time license fees of $50 million.

While those numbers suggest a big impact for the city, Lux calls the casino the “complete solution” for the state. He cites 2,500 permanent jobs that would be created by the casino. Those jobs would require training, which would be paid for by a private endowment of $62.5 million over 15 years. Working with the mayor’s office and Council Member Gary Schiff, the community benefits program would target residents of the city’s poorest areas for training.

“And these aren’t low paying jobs, these are family-sustaining jobs with benefits,” Lux said. “So it’s an incredible opportunity to target those that need the jobs the most, to provide them the training they need.”

Alatus has been working with local community groups, including many in North Minneapolis, to develop the community benefits program. Tourism board Meet Minneapolis has endorsed the plan, as has the AFL-CIO. Police Chief Tim Dolan said in October that increased activity from the casino would displace criminal activity. But the plan still faces heavy opposition. Tribal groups and members of both political parties have come forward to oppose the plan. But it still has some supporters at the capital.

“I’m going to keep pushing it in the House,” said Rep. John Kriesel, the Cottage Grove Republican who introduced the original Block E legislation. Kriesel said the discussion of the casino as a funding source for a stadium has helped the bill pick up momentum, and he also sees it boosting both the city and the state.

Kriesel said that the casino would bee a boon on its own merits. Should it not be used to fund a Vikings stadium, he suggested it could be used to pay back shifts in school budgets.

“If Minneapolis is doing well, then the state is doing well,” Kriesel said. “If there is something that can help the whole state, we would be foolish to not do it.”

Lux would put no end date on when he would stop pushing for the downtown casino, but the backup plan for the complex has come into sharper focus. He said Alatus would redevelop Block E into a five-story, 350,000-square-foot office building with 75,000 square foot parcels. There would be some retail and restaurant space, but no venues or clubs. Most of the remaining tenants, such as Kieran’s Irish Pub and The Shout House, would stay. As expected, Lux confirmed that the AMC movie theater will close when its lease ends in September.

Lux said the backup plan for Block E would be a good use for the space and a definite improvement over its current state as a mostly vacant retail complex.

“But there’s nothing we could do at Block E that would be as transformative as what we’re trying to do with the casino,” he said.


Adding bicycle parking, one meter at a time

The city’s ongoing effort to upgrade its metered parking system could have an upside for bicyclists, especially in places like bike-crazy Uptown where it can be tough to find an open bike rack.

Coin-operated machines still control most of the city’s 6,800 or so metered parking spaces, but those are beginning to disappear. Starting last year on a few streets Downtown, Public Works crews replaced the old machines with numbered posts, each with a five-digit code for the corresponding parking spot.

Drivers park, take note of the number and then walk to a nearby electronic kiosk where they punch in the code and make their payment. One advantage of the new system is it takes not only coins but also cash and debit or credit cards.

As the old coin-operated machines disappear, though, bicyclists are losing out on some convenient, if not necessarily legal, parking spaces, noted Janne Flisrand, a volunteer with the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition.

To be clear, city code prohibits locking bicycles to parking meters. But they’re often used for locking up bicycles anyway, and sometimes — especially in busy commercial districts that draw large numbers of cyclists — they’re the only safe, convenient parking spaces to be found, Flisrand said.

The new parking spot markers may be just as convenient, but they’re not safe. A bike secured with a traditional U-lock could simply be lifted up and off one of the skinny posts.

In February, Public Works crews began testing several different designs for bicycle hitches that slide over the numbered posts and hold locked bicycles safely and securely in place. As the multi-space parking system expands to the Uptown and Cedar Riverside areas this year, so too could the hitches.

Flisrand said the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition was leading an outreach effort to make Uptown property owners aware of the new opportunity to expand bicycle parking. The city already operates a Bicycle Rack Cost Share Program that encourages property owners to install bike racks by contributing half of the project’s cost, but it was unclear in February if that program would be used to pay for hitches.

For more information, contact the coalition at 568-6227 or mplsbikeracks@yahoo.com.

So, why does the old ordinance about locking bikes to parking meters not apply to the new posts?

Traffic engineer Tim Drew said the ordinance was written so that motorists wouldn’t have to climb over bicycles to plug their meters. Now that motorists walk down the block to a kiosk, instead, the city has decided to treat the numbered posts like any other street sign — which is to say, a legal parking spot for your bike.


A new vision for Central’s streetscape


CENTRAL AVENUE — Technical staff at the city are pooling input submitted on dozens of post-it notes to create a final design for Central Avenue’s new median.

“We want a design that’s sustainable and tidy, with a consistent, attractive design throughout,” said Council Member Kevin Reich (1st Ward). “We also want to explore opportunities beyond the median.”

That could mean more public art or new signage to provide transitional cues on the southern end of Central, created through neighborhood partnerships.

City staff are adding trees, creating curb cuts tailored for pedestrians and bikes, and considering methods to create more space for bus stops.

Jeffrey Martin, president of the Waite Park Community Council, said that when the median was stripped for regrading last fall, he fielded three dozen calls — more calls than any other issue in five years.

“It’s one of those quality of life things that seems to touch everybody,” Martin said. “It’s just a median, but at the same time, it is a backbone.”


Cash available for NE storefronts


Northeast business corridors have a new chance to invest in their storefronts.

The Northeast Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce has secured a $50,000 grant so that businesses in nine nodes of Northeast can buy new awnings or replace old windows. Property owners can even use the money on empty storefronts to fix up the spaces and attract new tenants. The Great Streets Facade Improvement Matching Grants are designed to help sustain vibrant commercial districts.

Northeast businesses like the Northeast Social Club at 359 13th Ave. NE have benefited from the grants in the past. Element Pizza at 96 Broadway St. NE used a $5,000 grant to convert a dentist’s office into the pizza place. Element matched the grant with private dollars and used the money for new windows, doors, lighting and awnings.


Mason Jennings performed at Hollywood Theater


AUDUBON PARK — If you haven’t seen inside the Hollywood Theater in a while, TPT is offering a close-up.

During a recent Minnesota Original episode, songwriter Mason Jennings performed in the empty theater. The Hollywood serves as more than a backdrop for the performance, and the cameras stay close to the worn seats, peeling paint and vintage details.

“These are fantastic photos of the interior,” said Miles Mercer, a senior project coordinator for the city of Minneapolis, adding that the episode promotes the city’s goal of bringing attention to the theater. The city has owned the Hollywood since 1993, and it is working to sell the property.

In recent months, the Hollywood has hosted two live theater shows and a photo shoot for Vanity’s winter 2011 collection. Next spring marks the debut of a Minnesota-made short film called “Golden Hour,” which was partially shot inside the theater last fall.

Mercer said there are no other immediate plans for the Hollywood on the horizon, but it will open to the public during Johnstock, a Johnson Street party slated for next summer.

Portions of the TPT episode are available to view online, such as the song “Raindrops on the Kitchen Floor” at http://www.mnoriginal.org/art/?p=10330. Snapshots of the theater are also posted at  http://www.mnoriginal.org/art/?p=9857


Waite Park leader stepping down


WAITE PARK — After four years, the president of the Waite Park Community Council, Jeffrey Martin, is stepping aside. Waite Park’s annual meeting is set for March 7, where the group will elect a new president and seven board seats.

“I hope that at some point in the last four years I did something that helped you. If not, I will keep trying,” Martin said in an email message. “Great communities don’t happen by accident, they take consistent work.”

For annual meeting details, visit waiteparkneighborhood.org.


Drink coffee for a good cause


NORTH LOOP — Your regular coffee habit could make a difference in the lives of people in need. On March 14, all coffee sales at Corner Coffee, 514 3rd St. N., will go to Venture a non-profit organization that works with the Karen people, a persecuted ethnic minority group from Burma/Myanmar. Karen refugees have been settling in the United States since 2005, and Minnesota is now home to one of the largest Karen populations in the country.

Corner Coffee, which is operated by Corner Church, has a long history of charitable events. The coffee shop held its first charity coffee drive after the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and raised around $4,000 for relief efforts.