Eager to enliven the nightlife around the new Minnesota United soccer stadium, St. Paul leaders are ready to allow more bars and nightclubs.
But, this being St. Paul, maybe not too many. City officials are proposing as many as 12 small entertainment zones — called commercial development districts — along University Avenue. The goal is to draw more consistent crowds to area businesses than the 25,000 or so expected to show up to Allianz Field on Minnesota United game days.
Establishing new commercial development districts along the Green Line in St. Paul would allow the city to issue a bevy of new on-sale liquor permits beyond existing limits.
"Many of our recent conversations have been centered on Snelling and University," said Dan Niziolek, deputy director of the city's Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI). "The stadium got the conversation going. But we are looking at all kinds of places where a bar might make sense — from Raymond to Rice."
City Council Member Dai Thao, whose ward includes the stadium and its surroundings, said his office asked DSI staff members to look into the development districts as a way to sustain the energy that is expected when the stadium opens in early 2019.
"This is a way to help small businesses, minority-owned businesses, capture some of that market," Thao said of development districts that could range from the Little Mekong area near University and Western all the way west to the Westgate area near Hwy. 280. "I think this provides a good balance and I think the council will support it."
The idea is worth exploring, said Jordan Anderson, owner since 1991 of Midway Uniform on University Avenue. He's seen the neighborhood struggle over the decades and now believes, first with the Green Line and now with the soccer stadium, that it's on the cusp of success.
Anderson expects the soccer stadium to have the same kind of transformative effect on Midway as CHS Field has had on St. Paul's Lowertown, where he lives.
"It's a positive all the way," he said of CHS and all the bars and restaurants that followed in its wake.
"In Lowertown, game nights [for the St. Paul Saints] have doubled the traffic. Now, even Wednesdays in the middle of winter are better than they were."
At the nearby Ax-man Surplus store, manager Eric Likes said new development zones would help the neighborhood regain some of its nightlife mojo from decades ago, when bars and clubs lined the avenue.
Likes bought a home a couple blocks from the store before construction of the Green Line and said he welcomes any revitalization.
"It's just coming back, that's all," he said of the traffic new nightclubs would bring. "I'm all for it, man."
St. Paul has traditionally limited the number of on-sale liquor licenses in each ward. That means that new liquor licenses outside of downtown are reserved for hotels, restaurants and private nonprofit colleges. But bars and nightclubs can open in commercial development districts.
Right now, the city has 16 such districts, including the former Schmidt Brewery site and an area north of University on Prior, where the hugely popular Can Can Wonderland opened more than a year ago.
The reason the city is considering 12 more on University, Niziolek said, is to avoid concentrating bars around the stadium.
"Studies have shown too many bars in one area can have a negative impact," he said. "We want to correctly distribute them."
While supportive, Anderson cautioned that not everything that comes with a more active nightlife will be positive. "If you put more bars out there that are open until 1 or 2 in the morning, you're going to have more problems," he said.
The next step in the process, Niziolek said, is hearing what the community thinks. A community listening session has been scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Rondo Community Library at University and Dale.
Niziolek said DSI staff also have been invited by the Hamline Midway and Union Park district councils to talk about the proposal at neighborhood meetings.
"It's fun to see all the excitement in the city right now," Niziolek said. We just want to build on that."