A proposed home and garden show, despite some obstacles, would bring a whole new crowd inside the puffy big top.
Since opening to the public on Nov. 1, Savage’s big dome has mostly hosted youth sports practices and indoor walkers in its 104,000 square feet of space. Now the City Council is looking at a proposal for a springtime home and garden show to extend the use of the seasonal facility to other community events.
Even supporters of Savage's new sports dome admit it hasn't always gone down well.
"If you don't have kids who play soccer, you see it as a big nothing, I guess," said Bryan Peterson, owner and general manager of the nearby Cal's Market and Garden Center.
During a recent City Council meeting, Mayor Janet Williams remarked: "We're constantly, to this day, hearing" from the dome's critics about their fear of "getting stuck paying for it."
But a new proposal to stage a spring home and garden show within its puffy confines is awakening fresh thoughts about the variety of uses to which it could be put.
"I love the idea of another use for this facility," said Council Member Christine Kelly as her colleagues pondered the considerable costs and other tradeoffs that could be involved. "It is a tremendous asset. To have a completely different use than we ever envisioned is fantastic."
Lori Anderson, executive director of the Savage Chamber of Commerce, has proposed a show in April as a showcase for perhaps 60 to 80 local businesses offering products and services such as painting, remodeling, carpeting and plants.
Non-sports events have been touted all along as part of the mission of a similar facility that opened about the same time in West St. Paul -- even though it's called the Regional Athletics Center.
"We're looking to get things like marching band practices, small trade shows, flea markets, antique shows, things like that," said Matt Saam, West St. Paul's parks director. "It's only been open since early November, so it's been all sports so far -- walking and practices, organized games -- but we're definitely interested in looking for other things, more in the non-prime-time slots, to fill up the hours."
Savage's dome is known as the Sports Center and has been thought of as a place for youth practices, mainly, with a side order of indoor walking as a means of making sure anyone can benefit from the facility.
So far, City Administrator Barry Stock reports, operating numbers look "fairly good," with 2012 leasing revenues coming in at about $118,000, better than the budgeted $82,000. He cautioned council members in a memo not to "get overly excited, as we are only two months into this," but added that he thinks the city can do better with more experience.
Savage has gone a bit out on a limb not only with a nearly $5 million dome but with an Environmental Learning Center nearby. Construction costs for the latter were covered mainly by an outside grant, but making it work in the long term is still a preoccupation.
"We're sitting with these buildings," Williams said. "We need to keep them ongoing. It's a great idea to get people in there [to the dome], including people who didn't think it was a place they would ever use ... [and] make it something that everyone benefits from at least a little bit."
Often on weekdays, both domes sit empty, awaiting the really prime times for use. And that's the rub with the home and garden show, which would consume much of a Saturday, when the city would expect to earn thousands in usage fees.
City Public Works Director John Powell, sitting in for Stock at a recent council meeting, pointed out that there are benefits to the city itself from an event like a home and garden show.
"It's a marketing opportunity for the dome as well," he said. "But precedent is important here: It's an entire day on a weekend, and what would be our basis for denying anyone else in the future? We recommend developing a policy on that this summer, before next season." (The dome is a purely seasonal facility, though the turf remains in place in the summer.)
As an aid to economic development, the chamber's Anderson would love to have the dome rental time donated. But, conscious of the economics, council members are reluctant to do that.
At the garden center, Peterson would be grateful for the help in his battle with big box chains.
"A few garden centers in the area have closed over the years," he said. "Shopping locally feeds a lot more of every dollar you spend into the local economy than buying the same thing at Home Depot or Wal-Mart."
In a suburb teeming with soccer players and other youth sports participants, the city's senior managers have said all along they are confident the facility's revenues will cover the costs of building it -- but also stressed there can be no long-term guarantees.
The concept of a garden show, however, speaks to how the facility could evolve with time, in much the same way that Lakeville's schools were built to be converted into nursing homes as that community slowly aged.
Council members agreed to a shared-risk/shared-reward concept, in which they would gather in a quarter of the receipts if things go well -- perhaps more in later years if things take off. That could still involve a loss, but that depends on how warm the weather is in April and whether there really are would-be users turned away.
Council members also pointed out there can be users before and afterward for a number of hours that Saturday, and perhaps even during the event, depending on the size of demand for the booths and how many of the three fields get occupied by the show.
Any cost hit to the city, Kelly said, should clearly be labeled as economic development and not a failure on the part of the dome itself.
"We don't want to skew it on breaking even," she said. "If we're willing to spend as a community, let's do so honestly if you will and say we're partnering with the chamber."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285