Look around and you'll see a nascent trend in Twin Cities economic development -- amphitheaters.
The sloping half-bowls are popping up in a lot of places: New ones opened in September in St. Anthony and White Bear Township. Oakdale added one last spring, and coming this summer are a grand, $2 million structure in Maple Grove and a modest $27,000, 35-seat model in Bunker Hills Regional Park in Coon Rapids.
City officials view them as a way to attract people to downtown businesses and to pull folks together, a destination point. A university professor and former city planner sees the point but offers some alternative views.
"Amphitheaters may be the economic development tool or tourist attraction du jour right now," said David Schultz, a former city planner and professor at Hamline University in St. Paul. Or, he said, building one could be part of a municipal "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses strategy."
The latest amphitheater project was approved last week in Ramsey for the city's half-developed Town Center. The City Council ordered final design plans for a 300-seat, four-tier project to be built next to a pond starting this spring.
"Amphitheaters make it more of a destination," said City Engineer Tim Himmer. "If people are driving by, they might stop to see it or come for a concert."
Three Rivers Park District spent $300,000 to build what you might call an ambidextrous amphitheater in St. Anthony. It can seat about 300 on a grassy knoll, under 150-year-old oaks. But the stage can be turned around so that it faces the Great Lawn, which can seat up to 3,000, said Denis Hahn, the district's outdoor education manager.
"Being embraced by the natural world at the same time you experience the creative performances of people, there is a magic in that," Hahn said. "I think people are drawn to that."
The grand opening in Silverwood Park last September drew nearly 500 people to hear musicians and see other performers, Hahn said. The amphitheater is already booked for 18 weddings next summer, he noted.
Elk River built a 350-seat amphitheater near downtown overlooking the Mississippi River nearly three years ago. It has drawn more than 1,000 people to some events, said Steve Benoit, city recreation director.
"It's a free opportunity for people to enjoy some arts and culture," Benoit said. "It brings people to the old downtown. It's good for business."
Ramsey hopes for similar benefits when its amphitheater opens in late summer. It will be built by Rhinestone Bridge as part of a new park with connecting trails in Town Center. The city got a $364,000 livable communities grant for the project from the Metropolitan Council. City officials also hope it will attract residents for townhouses standing a few blocks away.
Better than a pothole fix
Hamline's Schultz cautions that local officials should bear in mind that as the facilities become more common, their value as a marketing tool diminishes.
He also suggests that besides civic and cultural benefits for regular folks, amphitheaters may provide something else: political capital for city officials.
"They are great to build because they have lots of concrete and are visible," Schultz said. "A mayor or council member can point to it at election time and say 'Here is our amphitheater.' It's a lot harder to point to potholes and say we fixed them. It's better to pose by an amphitheater than a paved pothole."
Maple Grove has a facility that residents and leaders alike are likely to photograph when it opens in June. The $2 million amphitheater on West Arbor Lake features a band shell with a 400-ton concrete roof stretching 105 feet across the front, said city park planner Chuck Stifter. The nine terraces will seat 300 with lots of grassy seating behind that, as well as restrooms and a concession building.
"It's an engineering marvel," Stifter said, noting that the roof sits on six columns and is supported by a cable system. The city has plenty of parks and sports fields and had "a vision to have a community gathering place that reached an expanded demographic [group]," he added.
New trend, ancient history
Amphitheaters have been around for decades in the metro area and are in a number of cities, including Edina, Burnsville, Apple Valley, Stillwater and St. Louis Park. A couple of grandiose amphitheater proposals stalled some years back in Burnsville and Jordan, but the semi-circular structures are resilient.
They date back to at least 500 B.C. when the Greeks built huge circular versions seating more than 12,000, noted Beth Wielde Heidelberg. She teaches city planning and historic architecture at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She said amphitheaters help people connect with one another and the performing arts.
The outdoor stages give "people an opportunity to reconnect with the arts in a very personal way because they are so close to the action," Wielde Heidelberg said. "They are just fun ... a good way for cities to provide affordable entertainment that caters to a huge audience."
Jim Adams • 612-673-7658