Paramount expansion takes a step forward; Council will move forward on parks and rec property

Published 11:04 am Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Austin City Council on Tuesday agreed that a donation request that would enable the expansion of the Historic Paramount Theatre will move forward.

The Austin Area Commission for the Arts wants the city to donate the Parks and Rec office building to the agency that oversees the theatre.

Acquiring the office building, located just west of the theater, would provide needed space for a larger theatre entrance and wings, main floor restrooms, dressing rooms, practice and a multipurpose area, according to the request sent to city administrator Craig Clark on November.

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In the letter, the committee requested that the building be donated to the AACA, “or allow us to purchase the site for a nominal fee.”

The office is in the process of being relocated to City Hall and the city will no longer have a need for the building.

AACA executive committee member Randy Kramer appeared before the council during its work session,  a time when council members can review issues and decide what should move forward to a full council hearing.

Permanent action on items cannot be taken during work sessions.

Kramer told members acquisition of property to the east  of the theatre is no longer possible, thereby leaving only the west side of the theater as having potential for expansion.

Councilman Dave Hagen said he believed the expansion to be a good thing, but with expansion comes additional overhead.

“Do you think you have the ability to handle the overload,” he asked.

Kramer said the expansion would provide for more shows, and bigger shows. Some shows would have come to the Paramount before now, but the area is just too small.

Councilwoman Janet Anderson agreed, noting that as a board member for the Matchbox Children’s Theatre, which performs at the theater, lack of handicapped access and the ability to move from different ends of the stage have forced actors to “literally … go out the back door, come around, go in the front door, to make a stage entrance.”

The Park and Rec office provided access to its bathrooms for the theater, but the doors are sometimes locked and passing about keys is awkward, added Anderson. The other theater bathrooms are downstairs and are not handicapped accessible.

“I think it is a good investment, actually,” Anderson said, adding the new space would increase function of the theater and “be a good fit for the downtown plan and master plan” for Austin.

Councilman Jeff Austin said while he wasn’t against the idea, some concerns he received should be aired. One citizen said he was concerned that “everyone else has to pay market prices” for downtown property, according to correspondence he received.

“ ‘Giving a city building away is not fair to the taxpayers,’ ” Austin said, reading from the correspondence.

Austin asked how such a donation would spur economic development, or create jobs, as is the goal of such arrangements.

“I am just raising the question,” Austin added. “I want people to think about everything.”

Mayor Tom Stiehm said providing assistance was not a new thing for the city to do. Others mentioned use of tax increment financing and other provisions used to attract business or help them expand. Anderson said she thought both the city and county had, in the past, donated to the theater project.

Hagen said he believed downtown buildings are not necessarily marketable, noting that one Main Street building had been for sale for some time.

“This is a building being used for a good purpose; why not keep it in good use?” he said.

Stiehm added that “it keeps a vision for Fourth Avenue.”

New council member Laura Helle, who recently became the executive director of the AACA, abstained from the vote. Her fellow members voted to allow the discussion to move to a full airing in the council, at 6-0.

If approved in the future, it would mark another chapter in the renovation of the historic theater, built in 1929. It is only one of four atmospheric theaters left in Minnesota and is home to the Matchbox Children’s Theatre, Austin Symphony Orchestra and cconcerts and shows since it re-opened its doors about 17 years ago.