Tom Hoch can’t help himself.
Walking outside the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, the smartly dressed president of the Hennepin Theatre Trust spots some garbage on the sidewalk.
He pauses to pick it up. He checks the planters, fretting over whether the thoroughfare’s greenery is getting enough water. Then he scrutinizes the artwork that a staffer has positioned in vacant windows around the downtown theater district, making sure they show a pretty face to the half-million ticket buyers who visit the trust’s four playhouses on Hennepin Avenue each year.
“When people come to see a show here, the sidewalks are the theater’s living room,” Hoch said.
He has employed that holistic approach in various capacities over the past 30 years to make Hennepin a showpiece for the state. For instance, Hoch was instrumental in the city’s hiring of green-clad “ambassadors” who cruise the streets, keeping downtown in tiptop shape for visitors.
More crucially, he long has been at the forefront of what’s now known as creative place-making — using the arts as a catalyst for urban renewal. The new Bob Dylan mural that anchors the north end of the theater district was a Hoch initiative.
“The experience that people have extends beyond whatever we have onstage, and we want them to come back,” he said.
Most evenings, Hennepin Avenue throbs with crowds that include theatergoers, music lovers and sports fans going to see the Twins at Target Field, or the Timberwolves and the Lynx at Target Center.
But three decades ago Hennepin was a byword for urban dystopia. Fights were a regular feature. The homeless camped out wherever they could. Minneapolis, like cities across the nation, was suffering the ill effects of departing corporations and residential white flight, which emptied urban cores in the 1960s and ’70s.
City leaders began talking about ways to draw people to live and play downtown, not just to work.
Enter Hoch, a quiet crusader with a deep love of his hometown. A onetime schoolteacher and recent law school graduate, he got a job working for the Minneapolis Community Development Agency in 1982.
In a city nicknamed Teardown-apolis, preservationists were rallying around a budding movement to save the State Theatre. The 1921 theater, with its Renaissance revival architecture, was going to be razed to make way for the LaSalle Plaza development. The save-the-State effort was successful, and Hoch became project manager for renovating it.
“A project manager is like a referee, someone who looks out for everyone’s best interests, and Tom was well-suited for that role,” said Sharon Sayles Belton, the former Minneapolis mayor who was then president of the City Council. “That development was a huge deal at the time, and he had a huge job to make it work.”
Hoch cottoned to the task, even though he was learning on the job.
“There was no playbook about how to do it,” he said. One thing was certain: The State had to be a success because the nearby Orpheum Theatre (then owned by Dylan) would need to be saved, too.
Hoch helped acquire the Orpheum for the city, but then took a career detour in 1992 when the agency was split into two arms. He became deputy to Cora McCorvey, executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.
“Tom is extremely loyal, hardworking and super smart,” said McCorvey, who has remained close to Hoch. “But why I really trust him is because he cares about everyone. He would often visit residents of our properties to see about their complaints.”
McCorvey said that Hoch’s style is one of clear communication that invites trust.
“He doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” she said. “He’s able to navigate all kinds of different environments, from people with power, to people with no power at all.”
Building audiences, institutions
In 1996, Hoch returned to Hennepin as chief operating officer for the Historic Theatre Group, a for-profit company charged with managing the theaters.
He was teamed with Fred Krohn, the entertainment impresario who had persuaded Dylan to buy the Orpheum in the late 1970s.
“Both of us have law degrees, but my skills were mostly in booking and product, and he concentrated on the organizational side,” said Krohn, now semiretired. “Tom was good at the sort of detail to make the organization hum. He’s hardworking and skilled and knows how to work with city officials to make their objectives and his objectives line up.”
Hoch quickly launched an effort to save the Pantages Theatre from demolition.
As they were saving theaters and building audiences with blockbuster shows such as “A Chorus Line” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” the Minneapolis crew was also stirring up some bad blood with St. Paul’s Ordway Center.
Some of the Ordway’s key players had worked in Minneapolis, and were now competing for Broadway tours. Promoters exploited the rivalry to bid up prices for shows. There also was criticism that the Broadway tours were vacuuming money out of the community, unlike venues such as the Guthrie and, to a lesser degree, the Ordway, which hired Twin Cities creative talent onstage, not just as stagehands.
Hoch tried to keep a low profile, partly because he felt he had something larger to accomplish. In 2000, he became head of the new Hennepin Theatre Trust, a nonprofit that eventually took over ownership of the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters from the city (and in 2011 added a fourth stage, the New Century Theatre in City Center). But its initial mandate was to preserve and promote the theater district.
“I work to make Minneapolis a great place to live and play, and I’m glad I found such a purpose,” Hoch said.
He sees his work as part of a regional effort, something that Sarah Harris, now a developer with the University of Minnesota Foundation, agrees with.
“Work is portable — people can live anywhere,” said Harris, who once headed the Downtown Improvement District, which became a subsidiary of the Downtown Council, chaired by Hoch. “But if we can offer experiences at the third place, not where they live or work but where they play and engage with others, then we’ve got something special. And I think that Hennepin Avenue is truly special.”
Minneapolis to the bone
Trim and toned at 61, Hoch is a lifelong runner who must find a new way to stay fit after hip replacement surgery last fall.
Ask what makes him tick, and he’ll start rattling off big-picture ideas about the dynamism of cities and their global identities.
“When people leave here, they don’t say they’re from Afton or Woodbury or Deephaven, as fine as those places are,” he said. “They say they’re from Minneapolis or St. Paul.”
He often speaks in generalities, but with passion. After being asked the same question — what drives him? — in several ways, he finally came up with an answer as crisply tailored as his wardrobe: “This is my home. I love it here.”
The fifth of 11 children born to engineer William and schoolteacher Rosemary Hoch, he grew up at 43rd Street and Fremont Avenue S. in Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood.
“It’s changed now, but then it felt like a lot of people with big families,” he said. “It was idyllic because we had Lake Harriet for swimming and sailing.”
By his own admission he was a hellion as a teenager. “If you can imagine it, I did it,” he said. “I think that was because I hadn’t found my purpose.”
He became a teen dad. He also struggled with his sexuality in an era when society was much less accepting of gay men. That’s the main reason he decided to go to law school, in fact.
“I wanted to have a way to protect myself, and I thought the law was a good way to do that,” he said.
Instead, it helped him learn how to get things done. He knows how to inspire people, by leading by example and by being demanding. He freely admits to being a perfectionist.
Hoch now lives on Lake of the Isles with his husband, retired General Mills executive Mark Addicks. They love to garden, savoring blooms of peonies and bee balm.
Things have their seasons, he said. They shed in the fall, go dormant in the winter, but rise again in the spring. This, he feels, is the season for him, and Hennepin Avenue.
“I just want to make a difference,” he said, “and what better way than by helping our city bloom?”