Chris Pennington is one of those high-octane guys whose bouncing enthusiasm is infectious. And he’s thrown all that energy into a whimsical idea now coming to fruition: Can Can Wonderland.
An 18-hole mini-golf course designed and built by local artists? Craft beers, musicians, comedy acts and coin-operated mechanical arcade games? He can picture all of it. After years of dreaming, $1.35 million in total financing and an unexpected move into a former can factory in St. Paul’s increasingly popular Midway area, his Can Can Wonderland is just months from reality.
“It should be just way over the top,” Pennington said. “We’re not trying to be middle ground. It’s going to be the best in the country.”
Pennington said Can Can, which occupies about 20,000 square feet in the old American Can Factory, will open “sometime in September.” When it does, it will be the latest of a growing list of hip, oddball and intriguing attractions to have opened or that are planned for the Midway. An area that was once more known for factories, car dealerships and blue-collar neighborhoods is seeing an infusion of ethnic eateries, a bevy of new microbreweries and taprooms, and a surge in new rental housing along the Green Line light-rail transit corridor.
The planned new soccer stadium for Minnesota United at Snelling and University is expected to add even more retail, residential and recreational development to a once-blighted area between the downtowns, infusing the Midway with a new energy, said Kyle Mianulli of the Hamline Midway Coalition.
“It’s definitely a dynamic period for the Midway,” he said. “Because of transit and affordable housing, we are seeing younger families drawn here. We’re witnessing this great resurgence.”
Said Chad Kulas, executive director of the Midway Area Chamber of Commerce: “It looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be a draw to bring people to the area, as well as be great for the people living here.”
Mini-golf as art
Original plans for Can Can Wonderland did not include the Midway.
Back in 2013, the plan was an outdoor mini-golf course near the Schmidt Artist Lofts on W. 7th Street in St. Paul. The project, inspired by the artist-designed course at Walker Art Center, won a $350,000 grant from ArtPlace America in the category of “Using Art to Connect and Animate Communities.” Pennington had designed one of the holes for the Walker course and wanted to use art to create accessible and affordable fun in the neighborhood.
But after a couple of years’ work, Pennington said he failed to “iron out” an agreement with the Fort Road Federation, and the project stalled. “We thought we were going to have to give the money back,” he said.
Instead, they learned about the hulking and mostly empty American Can building, about six blocks north of University Avenue on Prior. The old 450,000-square-foot factory, near the former Amtrak train depot, houses a Goodwill operation and several artists’ studios and small businesses. It quickly became the new venue and the mini-golf plan moved indoors. The project so impressed the real estate agent who helped them find the property, Rob Clapp, that he joined the operation as chief financial officer.
“I just knew right away that this was something that parents would find appealing,” said Clapp, a father of four.
Can Can Wonderland is in the area’s Creative Enterprise Zone — stretching from Prior Avenue west to Hwy. 280, and from University Avenue north to Energy Park Drive — that seeks to attract and foster small, arts-oriented businesses. Can Can is working to win City Council approval for a liquor license, which would help make the business economically self-sustaining, rather than relying on a constant infusion of grants, Pennington said. Artists would design new holes each year to keep the project fresh.
Aaron Dysart, one of two St. Paul city artists and a friend of Pennington, said he loves the nature of the project, combining art and recreation.
“This is a way to make art outside the grant system, outside the traditional system for art,” he said. “Let’s see how far we can take this to make a goofy space.”
How goofy? One of the holes is tabbed “Natural Disaster,” with an earthquake and volcano. Another, “Grandma’s Living Room,” features a coffee table and doilies.
The project speaks to the essence of St. Paul, getting artists involved in turning an old building into a new novelty, said Adam Johnson, vice president of marketing and media relations for Visit St. Paul, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.
“The Midway is an area that we haven’t directed a ton of tourists to,” he said. “But there are a lot of places to eat and now, with the soccer stadium and this, more things to do.”
During a recent tour of the space, Pennington showed off a giant fabricated toad that will be used on one of the golf holes. For months, he has been rummaging through and collecting castoffs like church pews, batting helmets, even swimming pool noodles — never knowing which elements might find a home somewhere in Can Can.
“Isn’t this crazy fun?” he said.
Matt Privratsky thinks so. He and his wife moved to the area about a year ago after living in a condominium on Grand Avenue. The area’s still-affordable single-family homes appealed, he said. He works for a nonprofit; his wife teaches preschool.
He said they love the walkability of the area, the easy access to the Green Line that can take them to either city center, and the diversity of the neighborhoods. Now, he said, he is increasingly thrilled with the burgeoning social scene at places like Surly, Urban Growler, Bang Brewing and, perhaps, the new soccer stadium.
Mini-golf in the Midway?
“I like the idea of bringing something like that to the Midway,” Privratsky said. “It’s something that we will definitely go to.”