After more than a decade of talk and about 15 months after the city broke ground, the Burnsville Performing Arts Center is now two months away from being a reality.

Drivers on Nicollet Avenue can now see a building with a glass exterior that looks almost complete. Construction workers in hard hats are moving in and out of the building, the sound of their hammers periodically breaking the quiet of nearby Nicollet Commons Park.

And inside, workers are busy installing the ceiling of the backstage area, the seating riser, the pipe grid for the "black box" theater and the rigging system for the main stage, center officials said.

The final piece in the $150 million redevelopment of a once-blighted area now known as Heart of the City, the arts center is on track to being substantially completed by mid-December, officials said. Staff members are planning to move in Dec. 19, but work will continue through the first week of January.

As the opening approaches, private donors are stepping up their efforts. At the Oct. 21 City Council meeting, the Friends of the Burnsville Performing Arts Center, (FOBPAC), presented a $50,000 check to go toward the purchase of the same quality seats that the Guthrie Theater and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis have installed. The money will be added to the $193,000 already in the budget for the 1,000 main theater seats, city officials said.

In yet another signal that the Heart of the City and the Performing Arts Center have become a magnet for political point-scoring -- for opponents and proponents alike -- the check was presented two weeks before Election Day, when Mayor Elizabeth Kautz and Council Member Dan Gustafson will be up for reelection.

Wayne Huelskoetter, FOBPAC president, said during the council meeting that city funds committed for the center would already provide for an "exceptional facility."

"However, the budget is tight. A number of upgrades have been identified which will enhance the patron experience, provide additional equipment and improve the functionality of the center," Huelskoetter, a former chairman of the Heart of the City Steering Committee, said.

The Burnsville Performing Arts Center is a $20 million publicly financed building that will include a 1,000-seat main theater, the 150-seat "black box" theater, an art gallery and banquet space. It will host national touring and local concerts, dance recitals and conferences, organizers said.

Since FOBPAC's inception last year, the organization has raised more than $300,000 in cash, pledges, and in-kind equipment and services for the Performing Arts Center.

"I just see it as an affirmation from the community, from individuals, organizations and businesses, that they share the enthusiasm for the center," said Wolf Larson, executive director of the center, "and that they can see the benefit that the Performing Arts Center will bring, not just to the Heart of the City, not just to Burnsville, but to the whole south metro area."

Most of the money raised for the seats, for example, came from the "Charter Membership" sponsor-a-seat program. Individuals contributed $500 to have their name on a seat in the main theater for five years, Huelskoetter said. Those who sign up by Dec. 31 will also have their name on the Charter Seat Program plaque for as long as the building stands.

The center, which already has events lined up beginning in January, has been realized despite controversy and opposition by some residents who worried how much the building would cost taxpayers.

Kautz, who pushed for the Performing Arts Center, is running against Jerry Willenburg, who has emphasized the center decision in his campaign.

Although he said he recognizes that the arts center has become a central issue in the election, executive director Larson said the Burnsville Performing Arts Center will be able to provide access locally to cultural opportunities that "enrich life in any community."

"My personal view is that it's here, and we're going to utilize it to the best of our abilities and to provide an opportunity for the whole area to experience the cultural diversity and cultural offerings that they can't get right now without having to travel to the downtown core," he said.

Jeannine Aquino • 952-882-9056