Stymied by an impasse with the city over its expansion plans, St. Paul’s popular Circus Juventas is looking for a new home in the western suburbs.
“Our needs are in conflict with what the city is thinking,” said Dan Butler, who with his wife, Betty, runs the nonprofit circus school they started for kids in 1994.
Today, it’s the largest youth performing arts circus in North America, a much-admired junior version of Cirque du Soleil that has won national and even international acclaim.
The school’s success prompted the Butlers last winter to seek a lease amendment with the city to expand its 21,000-square-foot big top in Highland Park for new studios, prop and costume shops, offices and a gym.
But the sloping blufftop where Circus Juventas sits, near the park’s aquatic center at Montreal Avenue and Edgcumbe Road, won’t safely handle the 10,000-square-foot expansion the Butlers want, Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Brad Meyer said.
Another point of contention: The school opposes a shuttle system for audiences that the city wants to cut congestion and parking overflow on performance nights.
Meyer said the city’s door is open to further discussions, and that parks officials understand the school has a business model it needs to follow.
“We don’t want to see them go,” he said. “But we also can’t accommodate the size and scope, and the implications for parking and park use that their proposed renovation and expansion would bring.
“We’re still hopeful that Circus Juventas will be willing to come back to the table and do something that’s more appropriate for the site.”
Butler said that’s unlikely.
The Circus Juventas board now has its sights set on buying its own property and building a 50,000-square-foot facility in the western suburbs, where most of its customers live. That plan would include building more training and production facilities, as well as room for a professional school along the lines of those in Canada and Europe.
The estimated cost for expansion in Highland Park, including an endowment and maintenance, is $4 million. A new facility would cost about $10 million, including land acquisition. Either would require capital campaigns.
If the circus moves, Butler said, it would make a satellite location out of its facility in St. Paul, where it has 17 years remaining on its park lease.
“We’re not sure what we’ll do here, but we won’t give it up,” he said.
‘Embrace the uniqueness’
The Butlers, who were circus performers in high school and college, started Circus Juventas as an after-school program for 30 children in a gym at a Highland Park recreation center.
The program grew so quickly that in 2001, the circus signed a lease with the city and moved into its own $2 million facility in the park, with performance seating for 1,200 and room to train 500 students ages 6 to 21.
Circus Juventas now counts about 2,500 students annually, including 1,000 full-time and 400 in summer camp.
There are no elephants, no red-nose clowns in this circus. The focus is on the elaborate stunts that kid acrobats learn on trapeze and high wire, which are eventually knit together into costumed productions of theater quality.
Rehearsals are winding down this week for the biggest show of the year, “Neverland,” which opens Friday and ends Aug. 17.
According to the school’s latest available tax forms, the nonprofit took in $2.2 million in 2012-13 and showed expenses totaling $2.1 million, including $1.2 million in salaries (the Butlers together were paid about $270,000). The school gets about 40 percent of its revenue from performances, another 40 percent from tuition and 15 percent from donors.
Butler said the school would launch a $4 million campaign if it stayed at the current site, including $2 million for expansion, $1 million for an endowment and $1 million for exterior repairs and maintenance. He said naming rights would be part of a $10 million campaign to build a new facility, which would have a thrust theater with a capacity of 2,000.
In the meantime, the school’s board has set up a facilities planning committee and will hold an open forum in September to answer questions and get feedback from Circus Juventas families and interested parties, Butler said.
He praised the city’s longtime partnership with the school, but he didn’t disguise his disappointment over the failure to reach a resolution.
“What we were hoping is that they would embrace the uniqueness of what we’re doing here and that Circus Juventas would become synonymous with Highland Park the way the zoo is with Como Park,” Butler said.
“I’m concerned that, heck, if the same people were around back then, they would have said ‘no’ and we’d never have a zoo or conservatory because it didn’t fit with the plan.”