Burnsville is about to embark upon a $20 million experiment: Can a publicly funded suburban arts center fill enough seats, and generate enough economic activity, to justify the cost?

With the Burnsville Performing Arts Center opening this week, workers are rushing to wrap up the finishing touches. Residents are streaming in to buy tickets. From her fourth-floor condo across the street, the mayor who staked her political career on the project has watched as the city's "crown jewel" has risen from the ground up. And naysayers, who have claimed all along that the center is a boondoggle, are watching just as intently.

The center brings a venue to the southern suburbs that can offer national and regional performers and productions and save area residents the drive into the core cities. So far, the returns are promising, with tickets for some early shows snapped up.

Comedian Bill Engvall's show Jan. 30 is nearly sold out at $49.75 a ticket, and few tickets remain for the free "Talents of Burnsville" showcase on Wednesday.

"It's great," said Burnsville resident Sam Dalal, who was buying tickets last week. "Since we don't have to drive so far, it helps with the fuel costs."

The key to the viability of the center -- and perhaps of the fledgling Heart of the City redevelopment that it anchors -- will be whether it can keep drawing crowds after the grand opening excitement dies down.

"This is the beginning," said Ann Markusen, director of the Arts Economy Initiative at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the U of M. "Everybody is going to be excited in the first round, but the question is sustainability. Will people come back again and again?"

It's not only shows that will generate revenues for the center, which is managed by an Iowa firm, VenuWorks. It will operate day and night, with meetings, seminars, parties and, this fall, a magnet school.

That varied use is a key ingredient for a successful community arts center, Markusen said.

"It's going to depend a lot on their ability to get people in their own community to come out for events," she said. "That's their target population, people in their own cities and surrounding communities. Really making it a place that people feel welcome and are excited about, with things going on that they want to participate in."

Thus, the free inaugural show, the "Talents of Burnsville," will allow residents who own the facility to "initiate the stage" with their own acts, said Mayor Elizabeth Kautz.

"It will be a lovely addition to Burnsville, and having a center like that could really enhance the cultural feel of the city," Nick Zimet, a 26-year-old acupuncturist, said as he gazed at the facility from across the street. "I'm very excited about it opening."

A win-lose proposition

The PAC will be run as a business enterprise, said Kautz and the center's executive director, Wolf Larson. But measured strictly as a business, it's likely to start out as a losing proposition: It's projected to run at a $300,000 annual shortfall for the first few years at least.

Plans have been underway for a decade. After three private developers backed away from the project, the city forged ahead to build the $20 million center and an adjacent two-story parking deck, which cost an additional $2.5 million. Proponents have seen the center as a magnet to draw people and dollars to the $150 million Heart of the City.

City Council Member Charlie Crichton is among those who doubt the center will be viable. He says the city could be using that $22.5 million, plus $300,000 a year for operating costs, to offset state budget cuts.

"It's a great building. It's beautiful. It's wonderful. I'm going to try to get it filled," Crichton said. "But it is going to cost the city a lot of money every year. Private industry knew it couldn't make money. That's why they wouldn't do it."

Dan Kealey, a City Council member who owns a chain of music and video stores, was not in favor of the way the city funded the center's construction -- with tax levies and with host fees collected at a Burnsville landfill serving the metro area. But as a musician himself, he said he has loved the project.

He hopes that the center will break even. Still, Kealey said, the size of the venue is right for many acts, even national performers who might want to try out a song or comedy act in a smaller, unplugged performance.

"There's a lot of acts that would like to do a thousand-seat theater," he said.

Retiree LeRoy Carlson stopped by a makeshift ticket office at City Hall last week to buy two tickets to the musical "Cabaret" and free tickets to the talent show. He said senior citizens will benefit from such a close venue and that he believes the center will even help draw residents to the city's empty condos. And he's happy to be able to skip the drive to Minneapolis.

"Everything from Melissa Manchester to symphony to Church Basement Ladies," he said. "It's quite a nice variety; I hope they keep it up."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017