Officials rally for downtown theater funds

The theater has been vacant for more than two decades.

In a small parking lot wedged between the Hennepin Center for the Arts and the long-vacant Shubert Theater in downtown Minneapolis, city and county officials rallied to raise the tail-end of funds to make the renovation of a decade-long project a reality. The vision is to turn the almost 100-year-old Shubert Theater âÄî which has stood vacant on the corner of Fifth Street and Hennepin Avenue for more than two decades âÄî into a dance center. More than $36.2 million has been raised for the Minnesota Shubert Performing Arts and Education Center through public and private funding, but approximately $2 million more is needed before groundbreaking, Colin Hamilton, executive director of the center, said. If the funding is obtained soon, the project can begin construction in the summer of 2009. Mayor R.T. Rybak, who attended the rally, said construction on the center would put more than 100 people to work in Minneapolis, and said encouraging the arts is what Minneapolis is all about. âÄúThis is what Minneapolis does,âÄù Rybak said. âÄúIn the good times and the bad times, we focus on the arts here.âÄù Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin focused on the educational benefits of the center, and said the county is actively seeking $2 million in stimulus funding for the project. Advocates say the project could fuel $25 million worth of spending.

Oldest theater in the city

The Shubert Theater is considered the oldest theater in Minneapolis, according to city documents. The theater was constructed in 1910 to accommodate the Shubert Theatrical Company of New York, but since then has been home to a burlesque show, a movie theater and even an evangelical auditorium. The Shubert closed in 1982 and sat vacant on Seventh Street for several years. However, when the Block E area was designated for redevelopment, the only option for the theater was either demolition or relocation. Current 9th Ward councilman Gary Schiff worked to save the theater in the late 1990s. Then, while working to get into graduate school at the University of Minnesota, Schiff planned candlelight vigils and dressed as âÄúthe Phantom of the ShubertâÄù in order to gain media attention to save the theater. âÄúWith our strong arts economy, theaters of all sizes are needed in Minneapolis,âÄù he said. âÄúItâÄôs a vacant building on the cityâÄôs major commercial district; anytime a vacant building stands there it depresses the area.âÄù In 1999, with help from activists and the non-profit organization Artspace, the building was relocated a quarter-mile to Hennepin Avenue , instead of being destroyed. Since then, renovation of the theater has been stop-and-go. Artspace originally announced plans for restoring the Shubert in 2000, projecting a 2004 opening date. In 2006 the Legislature approved $11 million in bonding for the project, with hopes that the Shubert would reopen in fall 2008. Now advocates are hoping to start the project this summer.

A âÄòpositiveâÄô space in a âÄòtroubled areaâÄô

Visions for the new center include renovations to the old Shubert Theater and the creation of a glass atrium joining the theater with the Hennepin Center for the Arts. The atrium would serve as an area for ticket sales and concessions âÄî previous theater tickets were sold on the street âÄî and an administrative space between the two centers. To close the $2 million gap in funding, the Senate has provided about $2 million in the stateâÄôs bonding bill for the Shubert. However, the House provides no funding in their version of the bill, which will have to be reconciled in committee meetings, center director Hamilton said. The project will continue to seek funds from private donors, but Hamilton said this is the worst economic environment to be seeking private donations. âÄúWeâÄôve come a long way and it wouldnâÄôt take a whole lot to tip us into construction,âÄù he said. âÄúBut we all know this is about the hardest economy to move things along as most of us have seen.âÄù Collaborations with the University dance program have also been considered, Hamilton said. Hamilton and Carl Flink, director of the UniversityâÄôs dance program, have discussed forming a partnership that could include apprenticeship opportunities for dance students, and another stage to perform on. Officials said a major positive of the project is its potential to revitalize a âÄútroubledâÄù portion of downtown. âÄúWe can leverage a lot of spending on Hennepin Avenue and add a positive destination space in a troubled area,âÄù Hamilton said. âÄúThose are large, public goals the Shubert can support regardless of what it can do for the dance community.âÄù