Jungle Boogie

Two buildings, one loan: A tragedy in three acts

Act One: The Bright, Beautiful Future

As the curtain rose on 1991, the Jungle Theater opened near the intersection of Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue in south Minneapolis. To call the 89-seat theater intimate would have been an understatement. During intermissions, if there wasn't enough room to stand around the cappuccino bar, patrons would have to step outside and watch the traffic. But from its first show, Only You, the venue was drawing sellout crowds. Subsequently, the nonprofit won critical raves for interpreting the work of Samuel Beckett and David Mamet, hosting stellar local storytellers like Kevin Kling, and providing a launching pad for a late-night cabaret called Balls. It also didn't hurt that, before or after a show, theatergoers could take advantage of the neighborhood's distinctive cuisine. It's Greek to Me was right across the street, and the Blue Nile, a popular Ethiopian restaurant, was just around the corner.

Two years later the Jungle Theater was so successful its board began to look beyond its rental space for a larger, permanent home. The Latham Building, a three-story brick structure built in 1901, seemed perfect. After all, the place was in need of rehabilitation. Hennepin County had taken it over through tax forfeiture and the upstairs apartments had been vacant since a fire the year before. The theater made a pitch to the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA): The Jungle would gut the building, then rehabilitate it to create an inviting, three-story performance space featuring 175 to 200 seats. The proposed plan would cost $900,000. The Jungle would be seeking up to $775,000 in city loans to help pay for the project.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat is unhappy about the Jungle Theater's failure to redevelop the Latham Building
Tony Nelson
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat is unhappy about the Jungle Theater's failure to redevelop the Latham Building

But the Latham Building did have a tenant: the Blue Nile. And the restaurant owners had a counterproposal. They would renovate their space and restore the upstairs apartments for just $337,000, $70,000 of which would come from the MCDA. But the agency's staffers were not convinced the project would generate enough cash flow, and also fretted over the restaurant's parking requirements. The Jungle also had the support of the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group (CARAG) and the Lyn-Lake Improvement Association.

Ultimately, the MCDA recommended the Jungle over the Blue Nile and the Minneapolis City Council (wearing their hats as the MCDA Board of Commissioners) approved the deal in January 1994. In April that same year the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 to sell the Latham Building to the MCDA for a dollar. The MCDA would then sell the building to the Jungle for one dollar and provide access to redevelopment loans. As a part of the deal, the Jungle would have to kick in $20,000 for the Blue Nile's relocation costs.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat was one of the "no" votes. "I objected to giving away the building for nothing; I thought the Jungle could have afforded to pay something for it," he recalls. "The marketing pitch to us was, 'Hey, we're a poor theater, we just want a performance space. If you give it to us for a buck, we'll make it happen.'"

Today the Latham still sits empty--boards on its windows and a For Sale sign stuck to the bricks. Money from the sale will be used to pay off the city and ease the Jungle's mounting debt load, bringing the curtain down on the Jungle's attempts at redevelopment.

Act Two: A Change of Heart

Not long after the Jungle took control of the Latham Building, the edifice began to lose its appeal. After retaining an architect, the board realized that the rehabilitation would be more costly and problematic than originally thought. "It was just too small a site, too small a building," explains Eric Galatz, current chair of the theater's board of directors. Besides, he says, "a better opportunity came up."

In 1995 the building housing Knickers Pub and Fantasy House, an adult-accessories store, went on the market for $500,000. Sitting kitty-corner from the Latham and just north of Lake Street, the building seemed like a bigger, better option. "That did look like something that could be turned into a theater," says Julia Sand, the Jungle's managing director.

The Jungle staffers went back to the MCDA to draft a new script. Instead of using an MCDA loan to rehab the Latham, they wanted to use that money to turn the Knickers building into their main stage. As part of the loan-restructuring pitch, the Jungle professed its goal to eventually turn the Latham into an 80-seat space for "alternative programming," with room for administrative offices and rehearsals on the upper floors. In June 1995 the city council--functioning as the MCDA board--approved the changes.

According to an MCDA report, the initial estimated cost for both projects was $2.1 million. But that's not the way the plot unfolded. Sand says the capital campaign, once designed to raise money for both projects, yielded about $2.5 million. But the Knickers rehab would prove to be much more expensive than anticipated (by the time the Jungle opened its new theater in February 1999, the cost was $3 million). The Jungle managed to get $100,000 from CARAG's Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) funds to help fix up the Latham Building, along with $335,000 in state bonding money. They spent $125,000 to begin the rehab, sought an arts-oriented partner to help complete the overhaul, and even got bids from two different construction companies. But it wasn't enough. The debt load on the Knickers project alone was too much for the Jungle to absorb. "We spent so much time on [the Latham] building," Sand recalls wearily.

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