Show time? Not for a mall dinner theater

Chanhassen theater says legislators excluded it from MOA expansion to keep it from leaving present home.

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Chanhassen Dinner Theatres denounced legislators Tuesday for inserting language into a subsidy proposal for the Mall of America’s expansion that would prevent the theater from being part of the project.

Photo: Steve Rice, Star Tribune

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Chanhassen Dinner Theatres denounced legislators Tuesday for inserting language into a subsidy proposal for the Mall of America's expansion that would prevent the theater from being part of the project.

Theater spokesman Tommy Scallen called the maneuver "sleazy" and said Republican legislators from Carver County were behind the effort, in an attempt to keep the acclaimed theater from leaving Chanhassen.

Scallen said he had a blunt phone conversation late Saturday with Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, who he said told him that the language had been added as legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty were negotiating a 250-page tax bill that included subsidies for the mall's planned 5.6 million-square-foot expansion.

Hoppe and another legislator, Rep. Paul Kohls, R-Victoria, confirmed Scallen's account.

But they said they acted because they did not want public subsidies to be used to lure the theater to the mall, not because they wanted to keep the theater in Chanhassen.

"If public subsidies weren't involved, I would not lift a finger to do anything to keep them in Chanhassen," said Hoppe. If the dinner theater, which opened 40 years ago, were to move, he said, "I will be sad ... but in no way, shape or form will I stand in the way."

Mall and Bloomington city officials said Tuesday they were studying whether the overall subsidy package, which allows a series of sales, hotel, and food and beverage taxes at the mall and in the city would allow the $2.1 billion second phase project to move forward.

Mall 'very disappointed'

But Kurt Hagen, vice president for development at Triple Five Corp., the mall's owner, said the dinner theater and its ability to sell 250,000 tickets a year for a variety of musicals and plays was seen as a key addition to the project.

"We've very disappointed," said Hagen, who said mall officials had no warning of the move to block the theater's move to Blomington.

The theater, which has drawn 8 million guests since it opened, has staged 193 productions, starting with "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" in 1968 and including such Broadway classics as "South Pacific," "My Fair Lady" and "Camelot." It bills itself as the largest professional dinner theater in the country and the largest privately owned restaurant in Minnesota.

Although the theater recently announced a lease extension in Chanhassen through 2013, Scallen said it was negotiating to eventually move into the mall's much-anticipated second phase. "It isn't about not liking Chanhassen," said Scallen, whose father, Tom K. Scallen, owns the theater.

"This is our Disney World," Scallen said of the mall's impact on Minnesotans. Moving there would also give the theater a location that is "far more accessible than Chanhassen," he added.

The language in the bill

As legislators negotiated with the governor every night last week before Sunday's adjournment, the mall's subsidy request was one of many issues that occupied their attention.

When House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher left Pawlenty's office late last Wednesday, she told reporters the mall's proposal was unresolved and said "there's going to be small changes" to a development agreement involving the project.

The Minneapolis DFLer added that the language in the proposal about a theater would be "very well defined."

The subsidy proposal, in its final form, includes two sentences: " ... the agreement must also prohibit inclusion of an auditorium, theater or similar live entertainment venue. This paragraph does not prohibit inclusion of multi-screen movie theaters, nightclubs, restaurants, or museums."

Kohls said he moved to insert the language Saturday after talking with House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, who he said alerted him to language that at the time was crafted specifically to include the dinner theater. That language allowed a theater that "has a seating capacity not to exceed 1,500, with a terraced main floor on which at least two-thirds of the theater's total seats are located at fixed tables."

"I raised a concern. Rep. Hoppe raised a similar concern," said Kohls, who said the language appeared to be written for the theater.

"The issue was resolved after that."

The legislator's concerns were also shared by city officials in Chanhassen, who had talked to theater officials about building a new facility in the city. "We are opposed to any kind of public subsidy to the Mall of America that would directly, or indirectly, assist the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre [to move]" to the mall, said Todd Gerhardt, Chanhassen's city manager.

Scallen said mall officials told him Monday that one option might be to lobby for legislation next year to undo the language. "It's back room, you know, late at night -- everything that they make movies about in Hollywood, right?" he said of the last-minute change.

"[But] this is Minnesota," he said. "This is sort of the land of the free and pure, right? Hardly."

mkaszuba@startribune.com • 612-651-1673

sfeyder@startribune.com • 612-673-1723

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