Fighting with St. Paul, Circus Juventas hunts for new home

At odds with city over its Highland Park home, Circus Juventas – a St. Paul institution – is looking to relocate its high-wire act.

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The Circus Juventas Youth Performing Arts Circus rehearsed for their production of "Neverland" on Thursday afternoon at their facility in St. Paul.

Photo: MONICA HERNDON, Star Tribune

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Stymied by an impasse with the city over its expansion plans, St. Paul’s popular Circus Juventas is looking for a new home in the western suburbs.

“Our needs are in conflict with what the city is thinking,” said Dan Butler, who with his wife, Betty, runs the nonprofit circus school they started for kids in 1994.

Today, it’s the largest youth performing arts circus in North America, a much-admired junior version of Cirque du Soleil that has won national and even international acclaim.

The school’s success prompted the Butlers last winter to seek a lease amendment with the city to expand its 21,000-square-foot big top in Highland Park for new studios, prop and costume shops, offices and a gym.

But the sloping blufftop where Circus Juventas sits, near the park’s aquatic center at Montreal Avenue and Edgcumbe Road, won’t safely handle the 10,000-square-foot expansion the Butlers want, Parks and Recreation Department spokesman Brad Meyer said.

Another point of contention: The school opposes a shuttle system for audiences that the city wants to cut congestion and parking overflow on performance nights.

Meyer said the city’s door is open to further discussions, and that parks officials understand the school has a business model it needs to follow.

“We don’t want to see them go,” he said. “But we also can’t accommodate the size and scope, and the implications for parking and park use that their proposed renovation and expansion would bring.

“We’re still hopeful that Circus Juventas will be willing to come back to the table and do something that’s more appropriate for the site.”

Butler said that’s unlikely.

The Circus Juventas board now has its sights set on buying its own property and building a 50,000-square-foot facility in the western suburbs, where most of its customers live. That plan would include building more training and production facilities, as well as room for a professional school along the lines of those in Canada and Europe.

The estimated cost for expansion in Highland Park, including an endowment and maintenance, is $4 million. A new facility would cost about $10 million, including land acquisition. Either would require capital campaigns.

If the circus moves, Butler said, it would make a satellite location out of its facility in St. Paul, where it has 17 years remaining on its park lease.

“We’re not sure what we’ll do here, but we won’t give it up,” he said.

‘Embrace the uniqueness’

The Butlers, who were circus performers in high school and college, started Circus Juventas as an after-school program for 30 children in a gym at a Highland Park recreation center.

The program grew so quickly that in 2001, the circus signed a lease with the city and moved into its own $2 million facility in the park, with performance seating for 1,200 and room to train 500 students ages 6 to 21.

Circus Juventas now counts about 2,500 students annually, including 1,000 full-time and 400 in summer camp.

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