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Minneapolis’ Upper Harbor Terminal project faces another question: Who should co-manage the music venue?

Concept rendering of the community performing arts center
City of Minneapolis
Concept rendering of the community performing arts center at the Upper Harbor Terminal.

When Minneapolis officials began debating plans for the Upper Harbor Terminal project last year, the designs called for a first-of-its kind music venue that could hold up to 10,000 concert goers. 

But that element of the plan soon became controversial, with critics of the amphitheater worried it could raise property taxes and displace some of the people who currently live in and around McKinley, the neighborhood bordering the Mississippi River where the Upper Harbor Terminal project will be located.

To help quell those concerns, the City Council convened a citizen-led advisory board the Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee (UHTCPC) to brainstorm ways for developers and the city to avoid any negative consequences of the development for residents.

But now that committee must answer a question that could make or break residents’ support for the performance arena: Who or what should run the facility along with First Avenue?

A complicated structure

Besides the performance venue, the city’s concept plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal project calls for 300 to 500 units of housing; park space; and 40,000 to 85,000 square feet for businesses along Dowling Avenue. 

Plans for the project’s music venue call for it to host up to 30 big-name shows and 40 community events throughout the year, attracting up to 363,000 people to the area. The city says the venue would create about 560 new jobs in construction and 270 new positions in sales and operations once it opens.

Under the project’s exclusive rights agreement, which was finalized in 2017, the city of Minneapolis must legally control the venue, which is expected to cost between $26 and $49 million to construct. That way, the city can lobby for and use bonding money from the state to build it. 

In 2018, state lawmakers agreed to pay $15 million in bonding dollars for the first phase of the Upper Harbor Terminal project, money that will go toward redeveloping portions of the public right-of-way, building park space and installing utility systems before 2022; the city of Minneapolis has agreed to match that amount to help pay for the project. 

But the city also plans to request $20 million in bonding money from the state Legislature this year to pay for construction of the venue, though Gov. Tim Walz’s 2020 bonding proposal does not include any money for the Minneapolis project. City officials say draft language for the request is in the works, and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has visited the state Capitol to stress the importance of the project to lawmakers.

City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham
Before any legislation can progress, however, the city must first finalize the facility’s ownership, said Shauen Pearce, Frey’s economic development and inclusion policy director. 

Early on, city officials picked United Properties as the master real-estate developer for the 48-acre site, overseeing big-picture concepts and designs. Then, shortly after, First Avenue which currently operates five venues across the Twin Cities joined the development team, and the company is preparing to build, co-own and run the music venue, a setup much like the city has with the Guthrie Theater and St. Paul has with the Palace Theater. In addition to First Avenue, the venue’s design team includes LSE Architects, SHoP Architects and Coen + Partners.

If the state’s approves the city’s $20 million bonding request, First Avenue would need to raise an equal amount of money to help pay for the building’s construction. Then, under current agreements, the city would cover ongoing maintenance costs once the venue opens for concerts.

But city planners and City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, whose Ward 4 includes the T-shape property where the project will be located, said the city does not want to join First Avenue as the property manager or own the venue itself as it does with the Target Center because they don’t want to be on the hook for future remodeling costs.

“With the Target Center that is a huge issue that we deal with as a City Council, of trying to make sure we can afford the capital improvement cost for that building,” Cunningham said. “The city council does not want the city, the taxpayers to be responsible.”

Trying to create a new model

So who will partner with First Avenue? On Wednesday, committee members debated possible scenarios. The development team could create a new group, possibly with a board of directors, or partner with an already-established organization. The third party could be a nonprofit Community Development Corporation or a community-investment trust. 

Dayna Frank
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Dayna Frank
No matter its composition, however, the partner would play a part in holding First Avenue accountable on everything from racial equity to ticket sales, according to First Avenue CEO Dayna Frank. “This idea came up because there were a lot of questions like, ‘Who can guarantee in the long term that this space is created and operated to be culturally relevant and to be an authentic, meaningful to the North Side,’” Frank said.

Pearce said neighborhood associations in the area have discussed the possibility of filling the ownership role. Project leaders said the group’s workload will depend on its composition and goals. “[It] could receive checks or it could be on-site and, you know, be walking around and helping food vendors,” Frank said. “Literally, there’s 180-degree options.”

Before the UHTCPC makes a recommendation, it wants more details from the development team to understand, exactly, what it envisions for a community-ownership model, which would be a first-of-its-kind setup for Minneapolis. 

In recent weeks, committee members have called into question the community-ownership model’s financial feasibility and the lack of specificity on what the amphitheater will look (and sound) like for neighboring residents. 

Several committee members last week said the city’s African-American community faces an uphill fight to establish a successful Community Development Corporation due to systematic disinvestment in the north Minneapolis neighborhoods, and the ability to do so for the music venue will require the right combination of skills and money. They also stressed the critical role of First Avenue and the city to help the new organization survive.

“A lot of well-intentioned things will happen in our community where people will throw money at us and we’ll create new businesses, create co-op grocery stores and once they fail … then it’s all of the sudden, like, ‘Man, those people didn’t do that right,’” said UHTCPC member Alexis Pennie.

But some committee members said the first-of-its kind ownership model has the potential to make sure North Side residents benefit from the massive redevelopment project. “I really believe we have a chance to do things the right way,” said committee member Markella Smith.

The committee could finalize its recommendations for the setup during an all-day planning workshop on Saturday. The City Council will have the final say on the composition of the venue’s ownership team.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Leslie Davis on 02/17/2020 - 12:28 pm.

    The Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) deal is as crooked as it gets.

    Along with Mayor Frey, the Ackerberg Group, Frank Family, Pohlad Family, Park Board, and others, they rigged it up to steal the UHT from the people of North Minneapolis who should have received first crack at developing the site to produce great products and jobs, and generate wealth for the future of the community.

    First of all, the developers (United Properties and First Avenue Productions) had inside information about the property due to serving on the Minneapolis Parks Foundation Board, which is not to be confused with the Park and Recreation Board. The Foundation gives money to the Park Board (millions) and gets inside information and influence. They used this information and influence to get a leg up on any competition for the UHT property.

    The Upper Harbor Terminal manipulators, and their enablers at the City and Park and Recreation Board, claim they made it known to the Northside Community (of mainly poverty level minorities) that the Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) was available for development to those who presented the appropriate Qualifications to submit a Proposal. To demonstrate their genuine interest in the community the developers recruited the now out of business Thor Development, in order to “blacken up” the downtown development team. Parallel to that they focused on getting the mostly minority city and state elected officials onboard, and then corralled a handful of influential minority community activists.

    Promises of various sorts were made such as: free tickets to events at a proposed liquor-bar-music-venue named after Prince: part-time jobs at the music venue and now defunct hotel; free fishing rods and a pier to fish from on the river; affordable housing under the plume of toxic emissions from the GAF shingle manufacturer right next door; and the biggest payoff of all was a gift to the Park Board of 19 acres that the Park and Recreation Board confesses they don’t have the money to manage.

    When I was asked to get involved I discovered the swindlers trying to move a Concept Plan through the City Council so I wrote to the City Council Members, and other entities, explaining what was taking place in plain sight. I explained that this great industrially zoned site could be used for creating generational wealth for the community, and what was bad about the proposed Concept Plan.

    I wrote that what a music venue (liquor bar) at the UHT would do is:
    1. Release hundreds of publicly urinating drunks into the North and Northeast Minneapolis communities nightly. After events the drunks scour the area for prostitutes. That’s what they do downtown every night and the police will confirm this fact.
    2. Bring thousands of formaldehyde releasing cars and trucks into the area to pollute and jam the roads.
    3. Pave over a vast amount of UHT land for a parking lot.
    4. Create crappy part-time service jobs.

    The UHT is an industrially zoned site that is not suitable for housing because of the emissions of formaldehyde and other volatile organic pollution, from the GAF shingle making plant right next door.

    Shortly after my involvement the swindlers approved the Concept Plan and appointed layers of committees and advisory groups to obfuscate what they were doing, and stacked them with their cronies and crony friends. Then, on top of that, they appointed a special UHT Advisory Group to oversee those below.

    As if that isn’t egregious enough, the swindlers’ puppet, CM Cunningham who has no business experience whatsoever, is proposing that the primary UHT Advisory Committee members get paid for their work which is detrimental to the community as evidenced by the resignations of two significant members who could no longer bear the stench of the project.

    Rather than pay the UHT Advisory Committee it should be disbanded, and the entire UHT matter go back to the drawing board and do what makes sense and money for the Northside.


    Leslie Davis, President
    Earth Protector®
    A Certified Veteran Owned BusinessYours truly,

  2. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 02/17/2020 - 04:23 pm.

    The city of Minneapolis is a big business. I have lost track of how many venues they own. Should a government entity be competing against private business? I SAY NO. They always hire some management company to say what a good deal it’s going to be. IT NEVER IS. Take the Target Center, for example. Then they took over the two theaters on Hennepin, then invested in the Guthrie. So they want to own a concert venue? How many do they need to own? Don’t think we have enough? And they all compete for the same acts. Now they’ll get to compete against themselves.
    Where are the affordable housing peeps when you need them? The city wants to exempt their own land from that discussion. I am so glad I don’t live in the city anymore. I’ll take my suburb any day. Those politicians are accountable. The Mpls council? Accountable to no one except the far left
    This is outrageous, but this is what you get in a one party town. Which it has been since the 1970’s. Mark my words, this city will implode sooner rather than later. The people with money will move.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/17/2020 - 07:01 pm.

    Just out of curiosity, I find myself wondering what proportion of nearby residents (say, within half a mile) have expressed a desire for an outdoor concert venue that seats 10,000 people? I live on Ward 4 myself, but – fortunately – at the opposite end. There are perfectly rational and logical reasons why most people don’t really want to live across the street from a good-sized music venue, and I’d be surprised if a majority of residents in that area are as enthused about it as the City and First Avenue might be.

    The City, understandably, wants tax revenue. First Avenue, also understandably, wants the revenue that would come from a concert venue of that size. Residents, however, seem unlikely to reap a sizable percentage of that revenue, and mostly would like to be rid of the unsightly environmental scar of the metal recycling plant. Instead of some sort of fiscal windfall, it seems more likely that nearby residents will have to deal with more mundane matters like noise, parking issues, traffic congestion, public drunkenness, crime, and assorted other annoyances that often accompany facilities like the one being proposed. There’s no passenger rail access anywhere near the proposed site, so getting into and out of the area will require motorized transit, meaning an onslaught of automobiles on concert nights, or a veritable thundering herd of buses. Neither one seems especially desirable.

    • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 02/18/2020 - 11:49 am.

      One thing that should be a significant concern is building any residential construction too close to the GAF shingle plant.

      This place is an obnoxious presence on the north side. It decreases the quality of life for everyone nearby, fouling the air, and in all likelihood, imposing harms on public health.

      Any residential construction across the river will mean that no one will be able to open their windows during mild weather due to concern both with the intense and awful smell that place produces, and out of fear that exposure will harm their health.

      I’d be curious to know if anyone in the planning process took this into account.

      As an aside, how is GAF allowed to operate anymore on the north side? Does public health matter to city planners? Does research from environmental health figure into decision making? If not, why not?

  4. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/17/2020 - 07:19 pm.

    You know, not sure things get any stupider! If I got this straight: Lets do this river front development (which by the way we have already destroyed one mushroom grower entrepreneurs dream) to improve the north side, (read ~$50M investment should have some type of ROI/increase property values ie, tax base) and make the area more desirable, but, if it makes the area more desirable and improves the tax base, don’t do it!
    Guys just put a wooden deck in for folks to go fishing and lets move on. As gunny Highway would say “its a cluster-flock”. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up, you all are doing it by yourselves.
    Just a hint: Investments to improve things are suppose to improve things, If they don’t its call a “rat hole investment”.

  5. Submitted by Phyllis Kahn on 02/23/2020 - 12:51 pm.

    What is being done to ensure that this structure right in the migratory path is Bird safe in terms of glass and lighting>?

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