Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey set out his vision for an inaugural summer concert at the outdoor performance venue proposed on the city’s once industrial riverfront.
“The sun is setting. The Mississippi River is to your left, north Minneapolis to your right, downtown as a backdrop,” he said in an interview last week. “And Beyoncé is bringing down the house.”
No artist has signed up yet for a venue that’s still merely a big idea. But city officials are billing the first amphitheater of its kind as a major destination and the economic engine behind the 48-acre redevelopment of this site.
At the same time, the amphitheater has galvanized community skepticism about whether it will be left out of the city’s revitalization of the North Side riverfront.
On Friday, the City Council approved the concept plan for the former Upper Harbor Terminal, which Frey calls his top capital investment priority. The development team will flesh out the project, including the amphitheater, which could cost up to $49 million and fit as many as 10,000 concertgoers.
The city and First Avenue Productions, the flourishing entertainment company that would develop and operate the venue, hope to convince North Side residents, artists and business owners that it will bring exclusive benefits to their neighborhoods.
That outreach has not gone smoothly so far. Vocal critics of the redevelopment have singled out the amphitheater in particular as an intrusive attraction that will primarily benefit tourists, not the North Side. They are concerned the project would be run by a company with a growing roster of venues across the Twin Cities instead of directly by the community.
At a meeting last month, a group surrounded First Avenue CEO Dayna Frank outside of the council chambers, where for about 20 minutes they challenged her on the need for a venue of this magnitude.
“We want the community to manage the venue,” Jake Virden, a community organizer and rapper, told Frank. “We don’t want the periphery. We want the center.”
Frank responded that north Minneapolis residents have said they want an amphitheater. Surveys conducted by community nonprofit Juxtaposition Arts showed out of 400 people, a majority were in favor of an outdoor music venue, and more would be if it offered special performances for North Side residents.
First Avenue responded accordingly, proposing that a fee from tickets pay for “free community programming,” according to the concept plan. The company would also favor North Side businesses when contracting vendors.
It could reach out to north Minneapolis youth in hiring up to 70 interns for entry-level jobs, and could partner with Minneapolis Public Schools for music education and performance opportunities.
“It kind of marries a regional need and turns it into an economic generator for a specific neighborhood or community,” Frank said.
Still, much could change between now and when the final designs for the venue are approved. Frank said she wants to make sure the surrounding neighborhoods are involved in those discussions.
First Avenue has been interested in bringing music to the riverfront since 2015, when it started booking bands to play at Hall’s Island downstream and across the river from the Upper Harbor Terminal.
The city later took First Avenue on as a redevelopment partner for the site.
“There was huge room within the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for an amphitheater,” Frank said.
Three amphitheater concepts were designed, which would accommodate between 7,000 and 10,000 people and cost between $26 million and $49 million.
The one presented to the public — referred to as the “gantry” design — would be directly south of the N. Dowling Avenue bridge entrance. The renderings depict a massive lawn stage surrounded by levels of balconies, keeping some of the silos and domes currently on the site as decoration.
It would be owned like other venues in the city, such as the Guthrie Theater and Cowles Center. First Avenue would form an entity to own the amphitheater and lease it to the city through its useful life, which in turn would make an agreement for the company to run it.
That ownership structure would allow the city to ask the state for bonding money toward its construction as early as this year. The concept plan estimated a $20 million grant from the state, along with $17 million raised by a nonprofit and $12 million in private funding and tax credits.
Frank expects the amphitheater would host up to 50 ticketed events a year, including concerts, opera, musicals and theater productions. It also includes indoor space that would be open year-round.
The final deal will depend on feasibility studies, the amount of funding received and whatever the project partners and a planning committee, which will include north Minneapolis residents, decide on.
Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, who lives in the McKinley neighborhood next to the site, said it’s about time north Minneapolis got a “cultural institution” like others he sees around the city. “The North Side is so rich with culture and diversity, and we deserve to have nice things,” he said.
But some in the area are already feeling the redevelopment pressures.
Bryon Fleming, who owns a glass-blowing business across the street from the Upper Harbor Terminal, says his space was switched from an annual to a monthly lease last year because of the project.
He’s not opposed to the amphitheater — he hopes he can sell products on-site or that it attracts visitors to his shop — but he worries his rent will become unaffordable.
“As a business owner, that kind of gives you anxiety,” he said. “You don’t want to invest and be making big moves if you don’t know if you’re going to be at the place you’re at.”
Cunningham believes the amphitheater can serve both the North Side and the greater Twin Cities.
“It is absolutely the intention to have a both-and rather than an either-or,” he said. “It is good for us to bring other people from other parts of the city, the state or the country to come spend their dollars here.”