Organizers planning a 324-seat performing arts theater in downtown Stillwater want to build at the old Minnesota Zephyr train depot — and so far they're on track.
Over objections from neighbors, the Stillwater City Council recently voted 3-2 to allow a height variance of 7.4 feet on construction of the theater on the depot's north end.
"The primary reason for choosing this site is name recognition," said Franz Hall, who presented the plan to the City Council on behalf of Only a Dim Image Productions of Afton. "In the theater business, name recognition is pretty much everything. If you can't get your name out to your patrons you're not going to make it."
The Zephyr dinner train operated from the site for 23 years, ferrying more than a million customers on a 6-mile route on what is now the Brown's Creek State Trail. Owner David Paradeau ended the dinner train run on New Year's Eve 2008, and the depot building has been vacant most of the time since.
Hall and designer Roger Tomten described the project's design as reminiscent of past Stillwater performing arts theaters, including the Grand Opera House, destroyed in a fire in 1902.
As the theater group envisions, the Stillwater Zephyr Theatre would represent a major new attraction for the commerce-light north end of Main Street.
"My dream is that everyone would know Stillwater as the arts capital in the St. Croix Valley," said Franz Hall's daughter, artistic director Calyssa Hall. "Our goal is to rival anything of our size in Minneapolis."
The Zephyr would produce six plays a year with five performances a week. Calyssa Hall said the theater would be open to community drama groups as well as paid performers and would include dance and music.
Before the City Council vote, several neighbors on the other side of Main Street, in the Terra Springs condominiums, voiced their objections to a "massive structure" they said will block views of the St. Croix River. One of the neighbors, JoAnne Mrosak, said noise also is a concern.
In their debate over the height variance request, City Council members asked for a description of the "fly loft," the portion of the theater addition that needed approval. The loft, at the back of the stage, is an elevated area that contains lighting and mechanical equipment.
Council members Tom Weidner and David Junker opposed the variance request.
The theater proposal must clear several other hurdles, including a plan for off-site storage of tour buses that will transport patrons and performers, an agreement for maintenance, and a "developer's agreement" that lists intended improvements to the property, said City Planner Abbi Wittman.
Meanwhile, the Halls have received tax-exempt status for their project and now have started a capital campaign to raise the $6.5 million for construction of the theater and renovation of the existing depot. They hope to complete the purchase of the Zephyr property by late summer and open in November 2017.
"I know it's going to happen," Calyssa Hall said last week.