Famed circus switches to Southwest site

The Cirque du Soleil – which captivated locals three years ago on the downtown riverfront – will set up shop on a Parade Stadium baseball field near the Walker Arts Sculpture Garden for 40 shows between Sept. 23 and Oct. 23, under a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board deal.

The Park Board approved the lease 8-1 May 4, with Vivian Mason voting no. Mason, who represents the stadium's surrounding Lowry Hill neighborhood, criticized staff for not involving nearby residents and businesses.

Park Board President Jon Olson offered only praise, saying it was an "extremely difficult negotiation."

Said Olson, "We almost lost the event. I am tired of losing things to the Mall of America and St. Paul."

Cirque du Soleil describes itself as a dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment. It is part theater, part acrobatics, with an original soundtrack under a big top tent. It came to a Mississippi riverfront parking lot in 2002. The Guthrie Theater now occupies the site.

Judd Reitkerk, the Park Board's head planner, said the mayor and Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association approached the Park Board to ask if it had potential sites. The Park Board considered B.F. Nelson land just upriver from Nicollet Island, as well as Parade.

The Star Tribune's downtown parking lot was also on a short list, he said. Cirque representatives preferred Parade.

The show will have a 2,500-seat capacity, Reitkerk said. According to the Ticketsnow Web site, Sept. 24 tickets are selling for $155. (It refers to the site as the Walker Art Center.)

Cirque du Soleil has developed a number of traveling shows. This one is called Corteo (Italian for "cortege," or procession) and has as its theme a clown picturing his own funeral in a carnival atmosphere, according to the company Web site.

The Park Board will get $50,000 under the lease, Reitkerk said.

Cirque will invest $225,000 to prepare the site, he said. The Park Board views that as an added benefit. It plans to convert the Parade field from grass to artificial turf so it can withstand higher-intensity sports use.

The Cirque's site preparation will include such things as removing the light towers, which the Park Board was going to have to do anyway as part of the field upgrade, said Michael Schmit, general manager for maintenance and recreation.

The Park Board has 500 surface parking spots available on site, Reitkerk said. It should be enough to handle demand. The Cirque expects to need 350 parking spots per show, based on 2002 data. The Dunwoody Institute could provide overflow parking, as could the new underground Vineland Place ramp next to the Walker Art Center, Park Board staff said.

To reduce neighborhood traffic flow, people seeking to park for Cirque du Soleil in the Park Board lots will have to go to Dunwoody Boulevard. (Vineland Place will remain open to traffic, but surface parking lot entrances will be closed.)

Cirque is responsible to manage parking and security. It will get the show's parking fees, until it recovers its $225,000 investment. Any surplus goes to the Park Board.

The lease drew some questions and critiques from Commissioners.

Mason said the staff had failed to bring the neighbors and institutions such as the Walker and Guthrie into the discussion. Don Sigglekow, general manager for administration and finance, said staff did not feel comfortable going to the neighborhood until it had a plan.

Said Mason, "I think it is terrific we will have $50,000, [but] in principle, it was not right to keep the public in the dark."

Mason and Commissioner Annie Young questioned why Cirque was not sharing revenue, similar to other Park Board contracts. (For instance, the Tin Fish contract requires the Lake Calhoun restaurant to pay the Park Board a percentage of its gross sales.)

Siggelkow said the Park Board has both revenue-sharing and flat-fee contracts with private vendors, with staff recommending the contract it believes best serves the Board.

Reitkerk said the Park Board could have negotiated for more money if it had done the site prep work itself. By having Cirque do the site preparation (and keep the parking money up to $225,000), it reduced the Park Board's financial risk.

Several Commissioners asked staff to negotiate free tickets for kids from low-income families who could not otherwise afford to attend.

Reitkerk said Cirque gave away a number of tickets last time it was in town.