Local government

Major breakthrough? Council approves Civic sale

Greg Marsten | Staff writer

ST. CROIX FALLS – The St. Croix Falls Common Council worked deep into the night again. As they entered a closed session following their regular open agenda on Monday, March 9, they returned to open session and revealed that they have struck a tentative deal to sell the Civic Auditorium to a Twin Cities developer, along with the adjacent corner parcel, possibly alleviating legal hurdles to using tax increment money in a Civic rehabilitation.
 
The terms of the sale are slim and appear to have a number of contingencies, but it appears the 1917 Civic Auditorium will be included in a sale of the adjacent vacant lot on the corner of Washington and Louisiana, which was formerly the home of the Falls 5 movie theater, but has been owned by the city for years after razing the blighted building just under a decade ago.
 
According to city clerk Bonita Leggitt, the negotiated purchase agreement has nine different addendums or conditions to move forward, crafted by the two sides’ attorneys, several of which may take some time to finalize, but appear to address making sure the sale of the property ensures eligibility for the recently denied tax increment money, as well as other details to be revealed in the coming weeks.
 
While the use of the tax increment money is still being reviewed, there appears to be no immediate, specific timeline on the deal, in spite of the Tax Increment District No. 1 officially closing out in less than two weeks, after 27 years. While there are the noted addendums and contingencies, there will likely need to be a finalized developer’s agreement, and it may be necessary to forward the agreement on to several affected parties, including the St. Croix Falls Joint Review Board, which represents the taxing jurisdictions affected by the tax increment district, which is the city, county, school district and technical college.
It is unclear if other legal hurdles will need to be jumped, or if any of the addendums are “deal breakers” if not fulfilled. While the brokered deal seems to be a way to finally put the Civic issue to bed, once and for all, it is not set in stone and apparently does seem to hinge, at least in part, on the TIF money eligibility for the Civic project.
 
“They, the attorneys, have to figure some of that out,” Leggitt said. “It’s unknown yet, but it hinges on that (TIF eligibility).”
 
In a press release Tuesday from the nonprofit Friends of The Civic Auditorium, the group confirmed the Civic sale in a statement: “Though there are many contingencies to this sale that must now be met before the sale is complete, this major breakthrough appears to satisfy a two-year stalemate between opponents of the project who pressed for private ownership/development and Civic Auditorium supporters who wish to see the historic building renovated and re-opened as a cultural center.”
 
The Civic and other properties have been the subject of several closed-session common council meetings in recent months, involving the possible sale and development of the parcel adjacent to the Civic on the corner. The city attorney was recently directed to work with the, at the time, unnamed developer to make a deal on the corner property, bringing it off public tax rolls, along with the Civic property.
 
“This is a very good day,” said Bill Ties, FCA president. “We have a successful, reputable property developer aboard who sees the unique potential to develop the empty lot and work closely with partners in the nonprofit sector to fulfill the plan to save the Civic and get it reopened as soon as possible.”
 
Ties did not expand on the contingencies of other development plans, and admitted that “many details are unknown,” but the FCA did reveal some background on the likely new owner, Craig Cohen, whom they said is ”a St. Paul-based developer with many projects in his portfolio including the Keg & Case on West 7th in St. Paul.”
 
The Keg & Case development on West 7th Street in St. Paul is unique in that it combines multiple restaurants and merchants in a huge, open-air warehouse complex, in a revitalized and restored 1855 Schmidt brewery building, which has proved quite popular as both a food, brewery and merchandise venue.
 
The FCA release did say that Cohen “is excited about coming to St. Croix Falls and becoming part of reviving the historic downtown.”
 
Efforts to reach Cohen before press time were unsuccessful, although in his company bio, it is noted how he worked extensively with the city and local historic restoration groups when they undertook the Keg & Case project, which would also seem to bode well for the Civic, which has a notable historic pedigree and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
 
The on-again, off-again plans for Civic rehabilitation have been stalled and restarted repeatedly for several years now, after efforts by the FCA and others to keep the building public and renovate it, with plans to reopen as a multiroom event rental and lease-worthy performance venue, based, in part, on utilizing approximately $2.6 million in tax increment from the TIF district No. 1, in plans and proposals first crafted half a decade ago.
 
The use of the tax increment had been the recent subject of legal opinions, meetings and review, with the recalled St. Croix Falls Joint Review Board denying the long-planned efforts to utilize the increment in the rehab, hinging their decision on the building’s city ownership on land off the tax rolls, with assurances of a sort of future amortized tax collections as critical for the increment being eligible for the Civic project.
 
Recent efforts to use private donations and grants to build an expansion to add modern facilities and an elevator have stalled, restarted, renewed, and then seemingly were dead with that latest JRB decision, which appeared to deny hopes of utilizing the available tax increment originally earmarked for the Civic project as proposed for the since-amended boutique hotel development project, which was later scuttled by the developer.
 
It is also hoped that with the Civic deal, the door to several hundred thousand dollars in grants, pledges and donations, could be used toward the theater renovation and upgrades, although it admittedly hinges in part on what Cohen has in mind for the vacant corner parcel, and whether they want to “join” any new construction with the Civic, as a way to save on infrastructure costs like elevators, storage, rest rooms, and heating/ventilation and air conditioning. That shared utilities and facilitates concept was part of the original boutique hotel concept and is a way to offset some of the development costs of whatever is constructed on the corner parcel.
 
y alderperson Kirk Anderson and seconded by Jeff Virchow, with the two other council persons both voting in favor of the deal.
 
The vote to approve the offer to purchase was made by alderperson Kirk Anderson and seconded by Jeff Virchow, with the two other council persons both voting in favor of the deal.
 
Look to the Leader to update the preliminary details of the Civic deal and possible future plans when they become public.


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