The Palace Theatre isn’t at the very top of the list of projects for which St. Paul hopes to win state bonding next year. But it may be the one closest to Mayor Chris Coleman’s heart.
When Coleman was a City Council member in 1999, he fought then-Mayor Norm Coleman and downtown business interests to save the Palace and the adjoining St. Francis Hotel from the wrecking ball. The St. Paul Companies wanted to expand there, but the Historic Preservation Commission, backed by the young council member, voted the buildings historically significant. The insurance giant backed down.
Kelly Brothers, an investment firm, then bought the Palace and leased the renovated lobby to the Brave New Workshop as a comedy venue. But the 97-year-old theater has been dark since 2005, and it shows in the cobwebs, peeling paint and water damage.
Now the mayor wants to see the Palace become a hub for an arts and culture district he thinks can rival that of storied Austin, Texas. The city will ask for $6 million in bonding from the state to fund half of a $12 million project to reopen the theater.
It would make the Palace a showcase for contemporary pop music, the only venue of its kind in the metro area, supporters say. There are smaller halls and larger auditoriums, but “no 3,000-seat theater in the Twin Cities,” said Jerry Mickelson, co-owner of Jam Productions.
St. Paul’s top legislative priority during the 2014 session is $14 million for expansion of the Minnesota Children’s Museum, and second place goes to $8.9 million for improvements at Como Park. The Palace is third on the city’s wish list, followed by renovations at Twin Cities Public Television’s station and a regional public safety facility.
Coleman — ably assisted by his culture guru Joe Spencer — has made the arts a key part of his strategy to revitalize downtown. They’ve brought jazz to Mears Park, live music to the Amsterdam Bar and the Northern Spark art fest to Lowertown. The mayor pledged Monday to keep the Artists’ Quarter nightclub open. So when he calls the Palace “the missing link in our cultural scene in downtown,” you know he means business.