The Shubert moves up the city's priority list

Share this:
June 6, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

The Shubert Theater has stood empty since 1983, but it may soon be among the city's top 2006 state borrowing requests.

Project backers want $11-$12 million in state bonding - the kind of public financial boost that helped make Downtown's new Guthrie Theater and the Planetarium realities.

The City Council voted May 27 to approve a three-item preliminary project list to send to Gov. Tim Pawlenty: the Shubert, Heritage Park (a major North Side housing redevelopment) and University Research Park.

Artspace is developing the Minnesota Shubert Center as a three-building, $37 million project, said Director Kim Motes. The plan includes the existing Hennepin Center for the Arts, 528 Hennepin Ave. S., a renovated Shubert Theater next door, and a new atrium linking the two. The complex would have 250-seat and 1,000-seat theaters, office and rehearsal space for many arts organizations, and a statewide arts outreach program.

If everything falls into place, the Shubert Center could open in fall 2007, Motes said.

The project faces many hurdles. Some Councilmembers, such as Ways and Means Chair Barb Johnson (4th Ward), say the city first needs state help in reducing city debt on such major projects as the Target Center or the Convention Center. That would free up city funds to hire more police and firefighters, a top city goal.

Further, even if the state fully funds the Shubert request, the theater complex still would have a $12-$13 million funding gap. It will have to raise the cash from individuals, foundations, corporations and other sources - in the wake of other major cultural capital campaigns, such as the Guthrie and Walker Art Center.

Still, the Shubert project has momentum for the first time since the city rolled the2,908-ton theater off Block E in 1999.

The Legislature approved $1 million in Shubert planning money in the 2005 bonding bill. Motes said it would pay to convert schematic drawings into construction drawings.

Councilmember Scott Benson, (11th Ward), chair of the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said legislative leaders wouldn't make a $1 million commitment lightly.

He called the Shubert the city's "best bet" for funding in 2006.

An early timeline

The debate on the city's 2006 state borrowing request was stirred up before the state finished work on the 2005 budget.

The state Finance Department asked for 2006 bonding requests by June 15.

(Typically, the state has a bonding bill every other year. Since the governor vetoed the 2004 bonding bill, Minnesota will have back-to-back bonding bills in 2005-2006.)

The recent memo sparked a Council debate on priorities, one that extends back at least seven years.

The Council was considering demolition to redevelop Block E, home to the Shubert since 1910, but preservationists objected. In mid-1998, the Council voted 9-3 to move the Shubert to its current home, with Artspace agreeing to spearhead renovation, according to a Star Tribune report. Paul Ostrow, Sandy Colvin Roy and Joe Biernat voted no.

Colvin Roy was concerned that Artspace's request for state support would compete with the city's bonding plans, the article said.

The city eventually spent $4.3 million to move the Shubert - the largest building ever transported on rubber tires - and for a new foundation, Motes said. That is part of the $13 million Artspace is credited with raising.

The new debate pits Shubert money versus debt relief.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) pushed hard to make the Shubert a top borrowing priority, saying legislators already were familiar with it - while no one from the city had yet talked to state leaders or the city's own legislative delegation about the debt-relief idea.

"The question is: 'What is ready versus what is not ready?'" she said.

As a compromise, the Council voted 11-2 to send the three-project list, including the Shubert, to Pawlenty's office now. City finance staff will evaluate debt relief options to include in the city's 2006 bonding request and report back no later than Aug. 30. The city will submit its final request to the state Sept. 23.

Councilmembers Paul Zerby (2nd Ward) and Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) are against the plan. Lilligren called the process "sloppy," and said "we are acting as if rapidly made, poorly made policy is better than no policy at all."

Change in philosophy?

The Council is considering changing the method of its bonding requests.

Call it the St. Paul approach.

City lobbyist Bill Barnhardt explained it in a May 19 Council memo. For the past 15 years, Minneapolis has always had a signature project on its bonding list, whether the Convention Center, Guthrie or Planetarium. They were big-dollar, high-profile items that took several years to achieve. Property taxes never would pay for them, so when they received state support, there was no property tax relief.

St. Paul has taken a different approach, Barnhardt wrote. While it had some signature projects, such as the Xcel Energy Center or Science Museum, it also had years where it sought funding for smaller infrastructure projects, such as the Como Park fix-up that took the burden off local property taxpayers.

Barnhardt suggests Minneapolis could submit state bonding requests for projects such as regional bikes trails and upgrades to the Minneapolis Water Works - which serves Golden Valley, Crystal, New Hope and portions of other cities. Those would have a bigger impact on the city's bottom line.

Artspace's Motes said if she were on the Council, she would be looking at the public safety and basic service issues, too.

However, redeveloping the Shubert would also address economic development and public safety issues, she argues. The city has invested tens of millions of dollars in Hennepin Avenue to make it a more vibrant place, and the Shubert sits at a key Downtown light rail transit stop, the jumping off point for the Target Center and the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters.

"It is a dark, empty block," she said. "You wouldn't want it to be a foreboding block or two [visitors] would have to walk around."

Outreach

The Shubert Center isn't just relying on the city - it's making connections around the state that could only help it at the Legislature. For two years, the Center has run an Internet-based school outreach program, Motes said.

For instance, in the 2003-2004 school year, Earl Yowell, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra percussionist, had an online residency with Fergus Falls students; and Myron Johnson, choreographer for Ballet of the Dolls, worked with students in Lanesboro, Motes said.

This year, James Sewell Ballet had an interactive teaching session with Morris middle schoolers in advance of the Ballet's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" performance at the University of Minnesota-Morris.

In late May, Xenon Dance Company taught a one-hour movement class to Fergus Falls students through the Internet, said Terry Harrington, a physical education instructor at the school.

"They [students] talked about it for the next three days," Harrington said. "They thought it was a great thing."

Motes said the Shubert Center is working with a 30-member committee to help with private fund-raising. She believes people are waiting to see if the state supports the project, and donations would pick up if the Shubert makes it into next year's bonding bill.