Yesterday, the Saint Paul City Council voted to authorize the city to enter into professional agreements with two lobby groups as requested by the mayor. This is not unusual, as cities often use lobbyists to obtain state and federal money in order to build projects that help the city. Saint Paul’s list of projects seem worthy enough, including money for the park system, a position on a high speed rail connecting the city with Chicago, and local government aid. But, one project stands out that makes one question whether Mayor Chris Coleman’s intent is to help the citizens of the city, including the current and potential local business owners, or if his intent is to help moneyed interests and his own political aspirations. The Palace Theatre project shows a mayor who would give away a building and the development plans of a local business so that moneyed outside interests can take over in Saint Paul.
Fifteen thousand dollars will be spent on lobbying efforts to include a $12 million bond for Palace Theatre development efforts at the state level. The mayor calls the Palace Theatre “the missing link in our cultural scene in downtown St. Paul.”
But, how will this benefit Saint Paul? How will this benefit the people living in the city or bring in new people to live and work in Saint Paul?
Chris Coleman’s obsession with the Palace Theatre began in the late 90s. At that time, he was a council member and Norm Coleman was mayor. In 1998, the Saint Paul Port Authority worked out a deal with the Saint Paul Companies to buy the 500,000 square foot 7th Place facility, which included the Palace Theatre, for $1.6 million. The facility included 130 apartment units which would have needed to vacate for Saint Paul Companies to develop an office facility next to their world headquarters. Its plan was to add 1,500 jobs to downtown Saint Paul.
However, Council Member Coleman fought this development with the Heritage Preservation Commission on his side to declare the Palace Theatre and the nearby Saint Francis Hotel as “historically significant.”
A few months later, a local investment firm, Kelly Brothers, bought the property. While Brave New Workshop did some theater in the lobby after Kelly Brothers bought the property, the building has basically been vacant since 1999.
Now, during Mayor Chris Coleman’s third term, one and a half decades after he stopped viable development from happening in downtown Saint Paul, he has renewed interest in doing something with this un-utilized property. First Avenue and JAM Productions are cited as the groups that will manage the theatre building. First Avenue, once a great venue to emerging local bands before they were famous, now is a big money operation managed by Dayna Frank of Los Angeles. First Avenue also owns the Turf Club and books regular events at several other venues around the Twin Cities. JAM Productions is a large national promoter based out of Chicago.
These two outside groups are interesting choices for a metro area that is full of local promoters. Sue McLean and Associates are perhaps the most well known within the city. They book at venues around the Twin Cities and are the exclusive concert promoters for the Music in the Zoo series at the Minnesota Zoo.
Kelly Brothers, who still technically own the property, are a locally owned investment group. Fritz Rabens, a partner at Kelly Brothers, had previously worked for something to happen with the Palace Theatre. He was working with Steve McClellan, of Minneapolis, former manager of First Avenue and current artistic director of Diverse Emerging Music Organization (DEMO). Even though these organizations invested quite a bit of time between 2006 and 2008 and paid for the architectural renderings that the city appropriated for the current Palace Theatre proposal, there is no lobbying to have these local groups involved.
“I cannot believe the unprofessional-ism of the mayor’s office for not even talking with us about the new plans after all the work and meetings we had done to this point,” Steve McClellan said after last year’s press conference about the Palace Theatre.
Kelly Brothers were not present at the pre-election press release. Kelly Brothers have also indicated that they were not part of the current Palace Theatre planning discussion with the mayor.
Mayor Coleman is creating a legacy. 1,500 unrealized jobs. Working with out of towners rather than with local, independent companies. Paying lobbyists to present a professional image while acting unprofessionally. It will be interesting to see where this legacy leads Coleman as he sets his sights on higher office. Will those constituents, those people needing work, those former supporters who never saw their city grow under his leadership support him further? Or will his legacy be that of a man who delivered for the elite and powerful, but never on his promises to the tax paying local citizens and independent local business owners?