The Palace Theatre was built in 1925. It has showcased entertainment including vaudeville, movies and plays. Garrison Keillor hosted his Minnesota show there for a year. The last tenant, Brave New Workshop, used the space for plays in the lobby. The Palace Theater appears to have little significance in Saint Paul history. Having sat totally vacant for almost a decade has not been gentle to the theater. A few years ago, this writer was able to tour the theater with a non-profit group that hoped to use the space for connecting local musicians with touring artists. Just a few steps into the space and one feels that restoration would cost more money than what the space was actually worth. Crumbling walls, holes in the ceiling, rusty chairs, strange smells, bird droppings. One might wonder why there is a rush to save this theater. The city’s estimates are that the theater needs $12 million dollars to be restored. As with most city estimates, there are surely additional costs that we haven’t yet heard about. Are we short on architects who could build a modern beauty of a theater? Would that architect be able to do it for less than this restoration would cost?
Whether the Palace Theatre will actually be restored remains to be seen. With the mayoral election just around the corner, this media blitz may just be the posturing of a mayor who is seeking re-election and demonstrating his relevance to voters. The math toward reviving this dilapidated building may not add up even with city support.
If it proceeds, this project is consistent with other downtown projects receiving major outlays of dollars from city tax revenue-- the big money Saints baseball stadium, Macy’s which the city kept open a few years longer, and the luxury Penfield apartments. If past is prologue, the big investments will squeeze out any budget that might have effectively assisted struggling smaller businesses harmed by projects such as rail. City money goes to a few major developers while small businesses downtown and along University Avenue continue to close and relocate away. Venues receive varying levels of city support and scrutiny based on how politically correct they are. Artist Quarter, Amsterdam, Eclipse, Wild Tymes and the now defunct Station 4 have always operated at the brink. The Palace Theatre investment is another big money cornerstone project that takes away from what might have supported small business.
If restored, the Palace Theatre space would likely be managed by those who currently run First Avenue. The nightclub that helped grow the local music scene certainly has grown over the years, booking events at many other local clubs and with its most recent purchase of the Turf Club in St Paul. While First Avenue may have started as an independent nightclub that featured musicians who would not have otherwise have been given stage space, today’s First Avenue is different. First Avenue no longer takes risks, as the latest generation of local and touring musicians will attest. The place where unknowns emerge into well known figures has transformed before our eyes into a Hard Rock Cafe. Coleman takes few risks, desires a sleepy downtown residential area, and works with great vigor to undo any grittiness that the word “urban” might imply, so perhaps that is why Coleman is comfortable with the current First Avenue brand.
Those involved in the music scene may not yet realize that the support they are receiving from Mayor Coleman is symbolic. It comes too late and the recipients of this city assistance are too monied to actually make a difference to the constituents Coleman claims to be trying to help.