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Is Victoria Theater on the way to the $3.2 million funding needed?

Posted on 08 January 2018 by Calvin

Rehabilitation of the historic Victoria Theater has again stepped into the spotlight. The St. Paul City Council, acting as the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) Board, approved two key pieces of project funding Dec. 13.

A $200,000 grant was awarded to Land Bank Twin Cities for immediate building rehabilitation work. And, a $412,000 forgivable HRA loan was given to the nonprofit Victoria Theater Arts Center for acquisition and rehabilitation of the old building for use as a community arts center. About $250,000 is earmarked for the purchase price, and the rest would cover some building rehabilitation and holding costs.

HRA approval was greeted with cheers by a group of theater supporters at the meeting. The city funds are seen as opening the curtain to additional grant dollars. The group last week got a $150,000 grant from the Hardenbergh Foundation, which supports projects in the east metro.

Director of Planning and Economic Development Jonathan Sage-Martinson said the $200,000 grant would pay for building stabilization needs, including a new roof. That work needs to be done quickly to preserve the structure.

The funding was welcomed by theater backers including Historic St. Paul and the Frogtown Neighborhood Association. Theater supporters have worked for more than a decade to save and reuse it. The building, which has been vacant since 2006, has been threatened with demolition more than once.

“It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but the city funding is a big help,” said Aaron Rubenstein of Historic St. Paul. “This will help us gain momentum with other funding requests. City support has been critical throughout this entire process.”

The theater was built as a silent movie house in 1915. It later became a nightclub and cabaret and was a speakeasy—known as the Victoria Café—during Prohibition. Featuring dancing, cabaret-style floor shows, and Chinese food, the Victoria Café was raided more than once by police.

But it was also where the historically important “Moonshiners Dance” was recorded by the café’s orchestra. The song is included in the Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-album compilation issued in 1952. The anthology was a key part of the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

In recent years the building had different uses, including a lamp shop. When a previous owner wanted to demolish the theater to make way for a parking lot, historians and community members rallied to save it. In April 2011, the City Council approved the designation of the Victoria Theater as a heritage preservation site. The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission suggested resubmission for further consideration for National Register of Historic Places designation, which would make the building eligible for state and federal historic tax credits.

The Land Bank purchased the property in 2014 and has been holding it so that the Victoria Arts Theater Initiative can raise about $2 million to acquire and renovate the building. The long-term goal is to create a community space for activities including theater production and event and space rentals.

One huge challenge is the property’s poor condition, according to a city staff report. Roof replacement and building shell repairs are needed soon. The Land Bank will make the repairs to preserve the property on an interim basis until the ownership transfer and the larger rehabilitation project can proceed.

A few years ago, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative awarded $63,000 to the theater initiative group to create market feasibility, financial, and fundraising plans. The nonprofit Victoria Theater Arts Center formed in late 2016. The organization recently hired veteran community theater operator Julie Adams Gerth as executive director. Fundraising consultants Peter Pearson and Patrick DeWane were hired to bring in the funding needed for the project.

The city dollars are from the HRA Loan Enterprise Fund. Earlier this year the theater backers had sought funds through the city’s Long-Range Capital Improvement Budget process. But the project wasn’t considered eligible for federal Community Development Block Grant funds.

Rubenstein said that although not being eligible for capital budget dollars was disappointing, “the HRA grant and loan look like a better option for us.”

The Land Bank and theater group must meet several conditions before the grant and loan are disbursed. The $200,000 grant cannot be disbursed until there is a purchase agreement with the theater group. If that doesn’t happen within three years, the money must be paid back to the HRA. The construction loan, however, could be forgiven over time.

City staff noted that the complete acquisition and financing structure isn’t known. 2015 estimates from Miller Dunwiddie Architecture and Flannery Construction put the cost at $3.2 mil­lion, with $450,000 for acqui­si­tion, and $1.34 million for construction. Other costs include con­struction contingency, fixtures and furniture, and professional services.

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