When word came that the International Chefs' Culinary Center was closing, supporters of Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, who is running for reelection, began to worry.

Back in 2004, the culinary center had opened as a premier occupant of the newly named Heart of the City, the downtown redevelopment that Kautz had championed, and for which she's also been criticized by a small but vocal group in Burnsville.

In fact, the Heart of the City and its crown jewel, a $20 million Performing Arts Center nearing completion, became a rallying point for challengers attacking a slate of incumbents, including Kautz. She's opposed by Jerry Willenburg, who twice previously ran for City Council.

Now, with news that the chefs' school with its cafe and banquet center went out of business on Oct. 8, Kautz's supporters privately said they feared it would become fodder for those who say the Heart of the City is not prosperous enough. Willenburg has referred to it as among the mayor's "grand" projects.

"I don't want to make it into a political thing," Willenburg said in an interview. "Mostly, I'm just sad."

There's been good news for Heart of the City, too. Kautz announced last week Concordia University of St. Paul will begin offering classes in a renovated shopping mall there, news that was welcomed by citizens and the business community.

Ron Achterkirch, owner of the International Chefs' center and long a supporter of the Heart of the City, said his reason for closing was simple.

"It's the economy -- the cost of groceries," he said. "Two years ago, a 50-pound bag of flour was $7, and now it's over $40."

The closing of this classy venue, where hundreds of wedding receptions and other events were held just off Burnsville Parkway and Nicollet Avenue, leaves a void in the Heart of the City.

Willenburg said he's concerned that the loss of such a cornerstone could dampen chances that other businesses will locate there.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "It was a great amenity for the city. Turning around the Heart of the City is going to be a big challenge for us anyway when there is all this retail space that has never been leased. But when you have a sizable and highly visible business like this culinary center fail, it makes the job of turning around the Heart of the City that much more difficult."

It adds more fuel to a tense situation. For months, Kautz supporters and city officials have been privately seething over what they say is opponents' published misinformation about the cost of the art center and Heart of the City.

The Performing Arts Center is the final big piece of a $150 million redevelopment of the once-blighted area. Though it's not fully occupied, it has steadily increased the city's tax base and will continue to do so, Kautz has said.

Intense controversy over public spending was led by a grass-roots group with a website called "NoPerformingArtsCenter .com," now called Positive Change for Burnsville, which has endorsed Willenburg.

The question seems to be on the minds of voters. During a recent candidates' forum, a member of the audience asked what action each candidate would take to help the Heart of the City and the Performing Arts Center succeed.

All said they'd try to bring in more business.

Kautz said a management firm retained by the city will bring to the Performing Arts Center national acts as well as local acts. The lights will be on day and night at the center, where rooms can be used for corporate meetings. And she pointed to a new collaboration with Independent School District 191 as evidence of success.

At the forum, council candidate Michael Esch said the city must try to bring in as much business as possible to mitigate budgeted losses in the Performing Arts Center.

"The Heart of the City, it's not the current administration's fault -- Dan, Elizabeth and the other council members," Esch said. "The economy went to heck with the Heart of the City being empty. However, I do feel that we need to do more to get major tenants in those buildings, like the two restaurant pads that are still empty.

Council Member Dan Gustafson said already, many events are being booked at the arts center. He's long contended that more offices are needed in the Heart of the City to make it viable, and people are needed there day and night.

Mary Sherry, also running for council, pointed to a Heart of the City steering committee, which years ago disbanded. She'd like to see that group come together again, with new ideas and energy, she said.

Nate Bode, head chef and owner of the new Applewood Rustic Grille at Hwy. 13 and Cliff Road, said his restaurant, a division of Kraemer's Catering of Burnsville, will be able to accommodate every bride that had her reception planned at the culinary center, as well as other events.

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017