The lights of Minneapolis’ landmark Grain Belt beer sign should glow again in summer 2017, after the beer brand’s brewer recently finalized its purchase of both the sign and the piece of Nicollet Island that it sits on.
The purchase was a long time coming for August Schell Brewing Co. of New Ulm, Minn., which bought the Grain Belt brand in 2002 and immediately began looking into lighting up the sign. The company announced in late 2014 that it intended to buy the sign from the Eastman Family Trust, but it took more than a year to close the deal with the descendants of the family that once owned all of Nicollet Island.
Ted Marti, the brewery’s president, said the company will begin working to restore the porcelain sign, which was built in 1941 and has been dark since the early 1990s.
“It’s a cool sign and I think the metro area and Minnesota will be thrilled when it gets to be re-lit,” he said.
The sign, which measures 50 feet wide and 40 feet tall, originally stood atop the Marigold Ballroom at 1330 Nicollet Av. It was moved to Nicollet Island in 1950 and remained lit until 1975. It was briefly relighted, with much fanfare, in 1989, before going dark again and being briefly re-lit a few years later.
For years, the sign remained a Minneapolis icon — but it also became a hot spot for vandals. In the mid-2000s, the Eastman Family Trust was ordered to remove graffiti from the sign nine times in five years.
August Schell has hired a consultant to draw up a security assessment to protect the sign from future damage. It’s also enlisted a local historical consulting firm, Hess, Roise and Co., to help get the sign on the National Register of Historic Places.
The company thinks it will take between $500,000 and $600,000 to restore the sign, install LED bulbs — the sign currently contains more than 800 feet of neon tubing and 1,100 incandescent lamps — and turn them back on. Marti said August Schell is committed to supporting the project but will be looking for outside partners to contribute to the effort.
Jacob Frey, the City Council member who represents the area, said relighting the sign is an important part of a bigger effort along the riverfront. The lights have recently gone back on for two other iconic signs: one for North Star Blankets and the other for Pillsbury’s Best Flour.
“The Grain Belt sign is the Yellow Brick Road to the Northeast,” he said. “Literally highlighting it brings much-deserved attention to our central riverfront and to a section of the city that deserves a major entrance.”
Frey said his next related effort in the area will be to get lights on the Third Avenue Bridge.
Neighbors in the area are aware of the project and generally supportive, said Victor Grambsch, president of the Nicollet Island-East Bank Neighborhood Association. They do have one concern: that the back of the sign not be used for a separate advertisement.
Marti said that while there had once been talk of renting out the back of the sign for revenue to pay for the lighting, that idea has been dropped.
“We’re going to eliminate that back sign,” he said.
Marti said his company, which is the second oldest family-owned brewery in the U.S. and the largest brewery in Minnesota, sees the sign and the brand as part of the state’s identity.
“It’s a hugely iconic brand,” he said. “It says Minnesota.”
As the company finishes the work on the sign, it’s celebrating with the release of a new beer with a name that points to the Minneapolis riverfront: Lock & Dam, a copper-colored lager that will be released in April.