The notion that Eden Prairie would spend $700,000 so people could enjoy a pricey latte in the sun-dappled confines of a historic house was bound to raise eyebrows.
When the city's promised payback within a decade or so began to wilt amid the awkward realities of the site, things got worse.
"To have to go to council and say 'That $68,000 in rent? It has to go down to $35,000,' is a hard pill to ask them to swallow," said economic development manager David Lindahl. "There was talk of getting it appraised and selling it, but it did not sell."
Today, however, the Smith Douglas More House and its Dunn Brothers occupant have a brand-new gazebo in addition to vastly expanded parking to accommodate all those eager to use the space.
"I couldn't even count the number of groups that use it," said Ann Schuster, the franchisee. "There's a group of some kind in here every minute of the day."
But as successful as the place has been, it's the flip side in Savage, where a similar effort involving a historic train depot has just failed for the second time.
"We just got an e-mail saying he's moving out," Savage Mayor Janet Williams said Monday of the second person to try and make a go of it in downtown Savage as a coffee shop and restaurant. "I'm really saddened by this. The depot has added a lot to the vitality of downtown."
Both projects, in Eden Prairie and Savage alike, have been through some rough spots. Both cities have had to renegotiate leases in ways that expect less from vendors.
While Eden Prairie has struck a new long-term deal giving it a variable profit based on its operator's success, amid a sense is that Schuster's doing better than ever, road construction and other pitfalls apparently hit vendor Jim Lewis in Savage hard. He did not return phone calls asking about the matter.
Investment or money pit?
In each case, the dream is of a happenin' place dripping with local character -- a new civic amenity with an appeal far beyond that of any run-of-the-mill strip-mall chain.
But the fear in Eden Prairie, as Lindahl bluntly put it, was of a "money pit" -- a gauzy ideal that never quite pans out and slowly drains tax dollars as it subsidizes competition for a hard-pressed private sector.
There've long been pessimists in Savage as well.
"This place will end up scaling back on hours within six months and ... be closed by early 2010," a skeptic predicted in 2009 in response to discussion of the Savage Depot on a south-metro website. "It's essentially another glorified coffee shop. How about copying a formula that works? I have some ideas if anyone wants to open a restaurant."
When these projects do succeed, they seem to need outside boosts.
Hopkins' Depot Coffee Shop is barely in the black after many years' effort, and only with the aid of quite a number of outside angels, according to annual reports its officials post online. The former depot is positioned alongside busy Excelsior Boulevard and a heavily used bike trail, not to mention a proposed light-rail line.
The Eden Prairie Dunn Brothers similarly has been a project, with lots of creative partnering.
"We've had city crews do the extra parking for a lot less money than we thought, and that in turn has helped Ann's business," Lindahl said.
"We built a new shed with help from Hennepin Technical College; they did labor and we provided materials. We built the gazebo. There's a cookbook fundraiser with funds going to Ann. Our community foundation has helped.
'Best year ever'
"But things are better than they've ever been, and she's having her best year ever, and it doesn't surprise me. I get nothing but positive feedback. I like to ride bikes there with my wife and kids and sit on the patio, and there are always people there.
"There's still a few people in the community who feel like the city shouldn't be involved, but from where I'm sitting, it seems like a good compromise. A lot of times you see a place like that that's no more than a museum and is not open that often and is not appreciated by many people."
A constant strain in Savage had to do with the vendor's need to advertise, and the city's and historic preservation folks's hesitance to go too far with signage. The vendor can't just swing by Home Depot and nail up a bigger sign.
"That's a constant thing," sighs Schuster. "Any new idea needs to track with HPC [the historic preservation group] and all these committees and layers of things. You get really frustrated if you don't expect that. The gazebo was layers of approvals -- the paint matches, the shingles match, the trim matches, all of that.
"It doesn't frustrate me as much as at first because I understand it now, and in the end it all adds to the integrity of the property."
David Peterson 952-746-3285