In Eagan, plans to preserve park stall

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2012 - 9:20 PM

After losing bids for state grant money, the city's public funding package to protect Caponi Art Park has fallen apart.

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Artist and retired professor Anthony Caponi’s snake sculpture, a favorite with children visiting his art park in Eagan. The city purchased half the land in 2005 from the family, and the art park’s nonprofit board bought the rest.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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A plan to turn a unique collection of art and green space into an Eagan city park is in limbo after a $1 million public funding package fell apart.

South metro officials and supporters of Caponi Art Park and Learning Center learned last week that they were unsuccessful in two bids to win grant money from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Both Eagan and Dakota County this spring had pledged $300,000 to $400,000, contingent on receipt of the state grants, to allow the city to buy the portion of the park that is not already publicly owned, protecting it in perpetuity.

"Now without the state grant funds, all bets are off and we have to go back to the drawing board," said Al Singer, Dakota County land conservation manager.

Cheryl Caponi, wife of sculptor Tony Caponi and executive director of the art park, said Monday that supporters were still digesting the news and exploring other opportunities to make up for the missed grant funding.

"Everyone still has the same goal," Caponi said. "One way or another, it's going to get finished."

Efforts to protect Caponi Art Park and Learning Center, a 60-acre, sculpture-dotted parcel along Diffley Road, have been underway for years.

But the questions about the fate of the park have become more urgent as its resident founder, Tony Caponi, a 91-year-old retired Macalester College professor, ages.

The city bought about half of the land from the Caponi family in 2005, with help from the county and other grants.

The art park's nonprofit board took out a mortgage to buy the remaining land, which holds most of the sculptures and the Caponi family home and studio. But the group hasn't been able to make all the payments, even as they expand programming for an ever-increasing number of visitors. The park's events, including musical shows, kids' activities and poetry readings, are generally free, although donations are accepted.

Attendance at the art park has grown from 4,200 in 2007 to 17,000 in 2011.

The payment schedule has been flexible so far because the Caponi family owns the mortgage.

The agreement brokered in March -- approved by the Eagan City Council and the Dakota County Board -- would have made the art park an Eagan city park, with the nonprofit group responsible for operations and programming.

But the competition for the DNR grants was stiff.

For one grant, there were 27 applications for the available $370,000, with only one receiving funding. In the other category, three projects vied for a total $487,500. The art park placed third and the other two applicants split the pot.

Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286

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  • Anthony Caponi is a former art professor at Macalester College in St. Paul and now devotes his time to the maintenance and design of the Caponi Art Park. The park contains sculptures, trails and a theater in the woods.

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