The Rosemount Area Arts Council has made a novel offer that Rosemount officials were happy to accept.

The five-year-old arts council will provide volunteers to staff a new visitor center in the Steeple Center downtown. In return, the city provides free space for the group to display art and perform in the Steeple Center, a former Catholic church on Hwy. 3. The council also organizes concerts, Christmas shows and other events that bring many of the town's 21,300 residents together.

"Whenever you have local residents willing to step forward to organize and coordinate events, it's a win-win," Mayor Bill Droste said. He said the City Council recently agreed to the free space swap and expects the city's first visitor/information center will open in December.

State Arts Board leaders say they haven't heard of an arts group staffing a visitor center, although many art groups are in city facilities.

The space swap originated at one of the council's regular Thursday morning coffee sessions, said Jeanne Schwartz, a council leader.

"Now the Steeple Center is locked up most of time because nobody is there. This will give people an opportunity to come and see what's going on," she said.

Visitors will also see an art gallery planned for the former St. Joseph's Church lobby and sanctuary, Schwartz said. The Arts Council plans to exhibit works by local students from elementary through college ages, too.

Staffing the center in return for free space "sounds fabulous," said Sue Gens, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board.

"We are interested in having the arts as well integrated into the life of the community as they can be," Gens said. "So sharing services or joining forces to meet the needs of the community, I applaud them for that."

While staffing a visitor center is a novel idea for an arts group, getting free space for the arts in city buildings is fairly common, Gens said. She said one of the largest shared space arrangements started in 2003, when Bloomington included an arts wing on its new City Hall. Ramsey County had a similar arrangement at the Landmark Center in St. Paul, where arts groups received free space for many years.

Bloomington owns and maintains the wing that is used by seven different nonprofit arts groups. In return, they provide displays and performances at reasonable prices throughout the year, said Andrea Specht, executive director of the Bloomington Theatre and Arts Center. It's the largest of the seven groups with a $1.4 million budget and eight employees.

"Having the arts as a venue for people to come together and feel part of something larger than themselves has been real influential in creating a strong quality of life here," Specht said. She said co-locating with other city services, including a library and police station, facilitates "chance encounters with art."

"We get thousands of people who come through our gallery, who probably never would otherwise experience that art, because they are here and it is practical and accessible to them," she said. Bloomington also offers grants for which the seven arts groups compete.

Lakeville, too, houses its arts center in a former church. The city bought it about 11 years ago and remodeled it as a 300-seat theater. The city provides about half of the center's $400,000 operating budget, which includes two full-time city employees, arts center manager Tom Barnard said.

In return, the group provides art classes and holds performances nearly every weekend that offer a stage for local actors and musicians, he said. The programs attract about 50,000 visitors a year, Barnard said.

Rosemount's 35-member arts council receives no city funds. The all-volunteer group generates revenue from its events, donations and state arts grants.

Staffing the visitor center from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday will save the council about $1,000 in rent it would have paid the city for its two-night variety show in December, "Christmas at the Steeple Center," Schwartz noted.

The visitor center, which will provide information about local sports, businesses, school and arts events, will be called Rosemount's Front Porch. Schwartz suggested the name after reading a book about community making called "Rebuilding the Front Porch of America," by Patrick Overton.

"Community is the place where you have relationships with people you know," Schwartz said. She hopes the visitor center will be such a place, welcoming locals and newcomers with coffee, Wi-Fi and events information that will gather residents and strengthen community, she said.

Last year the council put on 25 events, 15 of them free and nine at local businesses. Its major annual event is a Bluegrass Festival, attracting more than 2,000 folks for a few days in August.

"We think the arts are essential to having a vibrant community," Schwartz said. "We are community builders as much as we are art lovers and artists."

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283