Curtains?

The Shubert Theater takes one for the (new) team

A lot has happened since the Shubert Theater made its slow but spectacular jaunt down Hennepin Avenue in the winter of 1999. Hennepin itself is being disassembled to make way for light-rail transit. In the theater's former spot, the Block E hotel/entertainment complex is rising at the rate of tropical undergrowth (suggested classification: vitis boondogglus).

On the other side of Sixth Street North, where the Shubert now sits adjacent to the Hennepin Center for the Arts, things have been a bit quieter. In November, Artspace Projects Inc., the nonprofit real estate developer restoring the Shubert, finally bought the land upon which the theater was plopped, putting to rest concerns that the migratory building would eventually have to be demolished (for more on the history of the project, see "Theater of the Absurd," February 23, 2000, available at www.citypages.com/ archive/). Yet Artspace still faces the daunting prospect of raising a total of $34 million to complete the project; thus far, the developer has collected $11 million, including the $4.8 million the City of Minneapolis spent to move the theater. Until recently, Artspace had pinned its hopes on an infusion of public financing--namely, $10 million in bonding from the state legislature.

Meantime, of course, change was afoot at city hall: One of the Shubert's staunchest supporters, former city council president Jackie Cherryhomes, was out, and leadership notably cooler toward the project, including new council president Paul Ostrow, was in. In December, as the new council was settling in, it was also setting priorities for city-sponsored bonding requests. The new planetarium, inner-city empowerment zones, and the Guthrie Theater made the city's wish list; the Shubert did not.

"The idea [to withdraw the bonding request] was brought to us by [Minneapolis's legislative delegation] and the mayor," says Stacey Mickelson, a former Republican legislator from North Dakota who now heads Artspace's lobbying efforts. "They told us with the numbers and the economic forecast, the likelihood of getting anything this year was slim. So it would be best if we pulled out right now. We thought it would be better not to fight with our friends in the arts.

"It was flattering [that] people thought we were enough of a player that we could be a spoiler," Mickelson continues. "It was a sacrifice for the betterment of the community."

Mayor R.T. Rybak lauds Artspace's honorable withdrawal from the fray, saying that the decision not to support the developer's bonding request will allow the city to concentrate its lobbying efforts on funding for a new planetarium and inner-city empowerment zones. "Two things were clear," Rybak explains. "First, we needed to get unified behind our top priorities. The second was that the Shubert may have some difficulties approaching the legislature this year. To be real blunt, Minneapolis doesn't have a lot of friends at the legislature right now outside the city [delegation]."

Rybak acknowledges, though, that no similar request was made of the Guthrie, which is asking for $30 million in bonding money for its new riverfront home. "The Guthrie in my mind is in a class of its own," Rybak says. "It has statewide, and even international, significance. You just can't compare it with anything else."

Unlike Artspace, Rybak continues, the Guthrie also has the benefit of decades of networking, and the support of key legislators like Minnetonka Republican Rep. Ron Abrams. "The Shubert could have been seen as in direct conflict with the Guthrie," Rybak concludes.

And, of course, even if the city had thrown its support behind the Shubert project, Artspace may have come away empty-handed--as happened when the developer last entreated the state, during the 2000 session. Sheila Smith, director of the advocacy group Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, notes that the economic downturn makes it likely that the legislature will approve a large bonding bill as economic stimulus (the Senate's proposed bill is a historic $1.2 billion, while Ventura's hovers around $850 million). Yet, she adds, even that is no guarantee. "You can't just walk over there and ask for money. There's a lot of luck involved, too. If you can find another way to fund your project, that might be the intelligent way to go." Intelligent or not, Artspace appears to have little choice but to find a different way. Although the developer is already preparing for another lobbying effort during the 2004 bonding session, both Mickelson and Rybak add that the city has made no commitment to support the project then, either.

Council president Ostrow, who was critical of the city's initial investment in the Shubert, hopes that Artspace will meet its ambitious goal. "The decision [to save the theater] is past, frankly, and the city has spent the money already," he says. "So now it's in our best interest to see the project succeed. That said, the concerns I had before--about whether the project can be successful; about whether it's appropriate to spend that much money to move a theater--I'm not going to back away from those. Artspace is a good organization. But they've got a lot of work to do, and they know it."

 
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