Another downtown Minneapolis public space — the little-known convention center plaza — is in line for an overhaul.

Mayor Betsy Hodges’ proposed 2017 budget includes $10.5 million to redesign the space, aiming to make it more attractive for conventions by flattening the slope and adding trees, lighting, tent anchors and electricity hookups. It’s the fourth-largest infrastructure item in Hodges’ budget proposal, which was released last week and must be approved by the City Council.

Opened in 1990, the 70,000-square-foot grassy plaza is located on 2nd Avenue and acts as a green roof for an underground parking ramp. It is home to giant wolf and moose sculptures made of recycled materials, the winning entries in the annual Creative City Challenge held at the plaza.

“One of the reasons we have seen that conventions don’t use it as much is because of … the difficulty with utilities, the difficulty with not being able to put a tent out there, the difficulties with it not being a flat surface,” said Jeff Johnson, executive director of the city’s convention center. He added that the time is right for a design refresh, given the reconstruction of nearby Nicollet Mall and expansion of adjacent Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The council member who represents the area, Lisa Goodman, said she had heard about general plaza changes but never received a briefing on a project of this magnitude. The council begins formal review of the mayor’s budget Monday.

“You’d think it would be something that would rise to the level of a major discussion,” Goodman said. “If we have $10 million hanging around to spend at the convention center … I’d ask the question, ‘Is this what we do?’ ”

Johnson originally requested $21 million for the project. The city’s 33-member, citizen-led capital long-range improvement committee, which reviews infrastructure spending requests, ranked that proposal 95th out of 97 projects it considered.

The committee doesn’t usually review convention center projects, but noted that capital projects should be submitted to them long in advance rather than pitched suddenly for the upcoming year. They also expressed concern about the cost and potential confusion about public use of “restricted green event space situated downtown.”

Citizen committee chairman Jeff Strand said presentations about the project had detailed plans, including some about the 2018 Super Bowl. “So it’s almost like everything is already cooked, you might say,” Strand said.

Johnson confirmed hopes to have the project complete in time for the Super Bowl in February 2018.

“We haven’t gotten into programming, really, with the Super Bowl,” Johnson said. “They’ve just kind of gobbled up all of our space and haven’t really necessarily told us exactly what they’re going to do. But they were interested in all of our spaces, and so we wanted to have it available.”

Johnson said shows that come annually to the convention center want to offer more “experiences” for attendees and could use the redesigned plaza.

The mayor’s proposal would fund the plaza project with revenue generated by the convention center. But that facility also runs an annual operating deficit, expected to be $8 million next year, that is plugged with general fund money.

The mayor’s spokesman, David Prestwood, said the convention center has done a good job of keeping expenses down and there is more money than anticipated in its account.

“One of the things over the years that the Minneapolis Convention Center — as opposed to similar structures in a bunch of other places — has done really well is keep it modern by constantly reinvesting instead of doing some huge appropriation every 20 years,” Prestwood said.

Council President Barb Johnson said the project was “absolutely” worthwhile. “That building’s going to need renovations on a regular basis forever, as long as we keep using it,” Johnson said.


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