In the old days of the 1970s, back when a donkey still numbered among Nicollet Island's residents, the island's quasi-bohemian aura set it apart in a city where historical quaintness often has been scrubbed off the map.
Those days seem wilder and woollier than the proprietary attitudes about the island that have emerged more recently. Area residents failed in a long fight to halt construction of DeLaSalle High School's small stadium, for example, but did manage to keep its turf real grass.
Now there's another tussle brewing that's turning out some residents who populate the island and some from the riverside housing developments that overlook the island.
Garfield Clark, who sells commercial real estate, last week came before the Nicollet Island-East Bank Neighborhood Association to explain a proposal he's working on that involves the island's iconic Grain Belt sign, which faces downtown beside the Hennepin Avenue bridge. He's been listing for sale the sign and the property underneath it on behalf of the owners -- heirs of the Eastman family that played a major role in developing the island.
Clark's concept involves both renovating the historic sign, which was relit in 1989 but has been dark for years, and creating a flow of money to keep the sign maintained and pay the electric bill. It's his idea for how to raise the latter money that's creating the fuss.
Clark is discussing installing an electronic billboard on the back of the Grain Belt sign, pointing to a similar sign atop the Stimson building on Hennepin Avenue. This new sign would replace the seldom-used traditional billboard that backs the Grain Belt sign now. People living on the billboard side of the sign are objecting to the possibility of adding advertising in a historic district that's in a national recreation area -- an area recognized by the National Park Service.
"It really, in my opinion, desecrates the riverfront," said Merle Minda, who lives in Village Lofts on NE. 2nd St. She helped to organize residents to turn out at the association's annual meeting to question the proposal.
Clark estimates the cost of converting the neon of the Grain Belt sign to cheaper-to-light and easier-to-maintain LED lights at $500,000 to $750,000. He has the Eastman trust interested in donating the property to a nonprofit he says could be established for the perpetual care of the beer sign. August Schell Brewing Co., which owns the Grain Belt brand, is willing to contribute some amount, and the electricians union is willing to provide some in-kind labor. But he said he's still got a gap, plus annual operating costs he put at $20,000. Rent from the electronic billboard could cover the ongoing cost, making the sign's operation sustainable, he said.
Clark's chances of introducing a brighter billboard to the island are difficult, however. The site's zoning makes putting a new sign there difficult, and historic preservation guidelines argue against it. But Clark reasons that by installing a new electronic billboard in space occupied by the existing one, he's merely updating an existing use.
The neon went dark with the demise of the original Grain Belt brewery. And the restoration of 20 years ago lasted just a few years, as did the next company, Minnesota Brewing, that bought the brand.
Schell, which bought the brand in 2002, offers three brews under the label, including the latest, Grain Belt Nordeast. Dateline wondered whether Schell might have committed a tactical error in using as a beer name a term that Northeasters of a certain age still regard as a linguistic putdown of the area's eastern European immigrants.
But apparently there's been enough turnover in the river precincts that pride of place is trumping political correctness. Chris Steller, a resident of the island and a fan of the sign, told Dateline that on a recent trip to Surdyk's to pick up the new brand, he was told that a shipment received by 5 p.m. had sold out in three hours. Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438