A plan to permanently protect a sculpture-dotted wilderness may add art to Eagan's city park portfolio.
Local officials and supporters of the Caponi Art Park and Learning Center hope to cobble together more than $1 million in public funding for the city to purchase the remaining private portion of the park on Diffley Road, preserving the land while a nonprofit organization continues to provide arts-focused programs at the unconventional park.
Questions about the fate of the art park have long worried its supporters, who've feared it might fade someday with the passing of its charismatic founder, Anthony Caponi, a retired Macalester College professor who is now 90 and still active as an artist.
In 2005, the city purchased about half of the 60-acre park from the Caponi family with financial support from the county and other grant programs. The nonprofit Caponi Art Park and Learning Center took out a mortgage to buy the remaining land, which holds the bulk of the sculptures and the Caponi family home and studio.
But the nonprofit, which has been expanding programs as attendance climbs, has been unable to make payments on that debt. The arrangement has been flexible so far because the mortgage is owned by the Caponi family.
About a year ago, serious conversations began about public ownership of the entire park.
"We've just all decided this is the best way to go," said Craig Harris, president of the nonprofit's board of directors. "There's no doubt that long-term, this land is preserved."
The city is applying this month for two grants from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, hoping for about $400,000 in total. If that comes through, Dakota County has pledged up to $400,000 from its Farmland and Natural Areas Preservation program, and the city of Eagan would also pitch in $300,000 to $400,000 -- most likely from a pool of park dedication funds collected from developers over the years -- to purchase the remainder of the park.
The Caponi Art Park and Learning Center nonprofit, which will also put money toward the purchase, will continue to operate the park and its array of arts programming.
Caponi, a sculptor, and his wife, Cheryl, have been developing the park for decades, integrating artwork into the landscape and weaving trails throughout the property. Performances are staged in a natural amphitheater, and art classes are also held on site.
The park, which opens on May 1 this year, is free for anyone to visit. The number of visitors has jumped from 4,200 in 2007 to 17,000 last year. "The growth is amazing," Harris said. "More and more people are finding out about it."
Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire said preservation of the park has long been a city priority because it's a unique asset and a key piece of a large swath of undeveloped land. The art park on Diffley Road is sandwiched between Patrick Eagan Park to the north and an outdoor athletic field complex to the south.
Although Dakota County Commissioner Will Branning raised concerns about spending county money for a city park, his colleagues on the board said preservation of the art park has value for the whole county, both environmental and recreational. Commissioner Tom Egan recused himself from the discussion because he is on the art park board.
"The fact that the county has had this conservation program and the needs of the Caponis have aligned really well," said Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler. "The benefactors of that will be the residents who get to enjoy the green space and the art park."
As for Caponi, he's pleased the park and his life's mission of connecting people to the arts will be around for future generations.
"We've been successful," Caponi said. "We hope to reach even more people now."
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286