By Frederick Merlo - July 16, 2021 (Pioneer Press)
Organizers behind the long-planned Victoria Theater Arts Center have purchased the shuttered cabaret at 825 University Ave. W. from the Land Bank Twin Cities, a major step toward reopening the site as a nonprofit community gathering and performance space at the edges of St. Paul’s Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods.
The purchase closed Thursday, boosted by $2.4 million in capital support from the state of Minnesota last year and an additional $1.6 million in public and private fundraising. The arts center, which sits on the Green Line, has $1.4 million left to raise in its $5.4 million capital campaign.
In 2009, when a private developer made plans to raze the two-story building — then a shuttered lamp store — for parking space, key partners such as the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, Historic St. Paul and Dangerous Productions rallied to save the 100-year-old vacant cabaret. The Land Bank Twin Cities bought the establishment in 2014, the same year the Victoria Station light rail stop opened, and has held it on behalf of the arts center for the past seven years.
“This is a huge step,” said Tyler Olsen-Highness, executive director of the arts center, in an interview Friday. “This is ultimately what it’s been about from the beginning, about keeping this asset in the community. We got it, which is amazing. It’s been a long seven years to get there.”
Olsen-Highness said based on discussions with VJAA Architects in Minneapolis, his goal is to open the arts center in early 2023.
“The back half of the building is the 120-seat performance space, but the front half is the more flexible community space,” he said. “We’re stepping into the more public part of the (fundraising) campaign, which will be about asking individuals in the community and throughout St. Paul to make it happen.”
The arts center has hired D’Angelos Svenkeson, chief executive officer of NEOO Partners, Inc., an urban planning and real estate development firm, to help with fundraising, programming and design.
“We’re proud to be part of something that’s in my backyard,” said Svenkeson, a Rondo resident who grew up in Frogtown. “We’re nearly there. There’s some real estate-specific financing or alternative financing sources that are less about art and either tied to tax credits or more local funding sources.”
To celebrate the building sale, the arts center will host a “We Bought the Building” community barbecue from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday outside the theater at 825 University Ave. W. The event will feature Frogtown and Rondo-area food, music and art.