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Arts Connection moving along with community theater project

The city of Woodbury is considering waiving development fees for a proposed community arts center, but wants no ownership role or financial commitments in the project.

Arts Connection, a Woodbury-based nonprofit community arts organization, is planning construction of a theater and arts center at East Ridge High School. The group is largely funding the $2.2 million project with a $2 million gift.

The proposal includes construction of a black box theater with 200 or more retractable seats, a gallery and studio for community arts education and an area for costume and set building and storage. Also, there would be access to East Ridge's Loft Stage.

Getting the city's approval for the development plan and for a waiver of roughly $50,000 in permit costs is the next step for Arts Connection and would provide momentum for the project, said Michelle Witte of Arts Connection.

Woodbury Administrator Clint Gridley recommended that the City Council waive the fees if Arts Connection reaches an operations agreement with School District 833 and receives construction authorization from its board. Council members said they could support it if the center's ownership is clearly outlined and does not directly involve the city.

While there is support for the project, Mayor Bill Hargis said last week that the city does not want to worry about ownership or operation problems in the future.

"We want this to have some long-term viability," he said.

Witte said the group is exploring three ownership alternatives with the school district. None of them directly involve the city.

Development and permit costs for the project are estimated at about $41,000 for city fees and another $7,000 for "pass-through" fees, including from the Metropolitan Council, said Dwight Picha, Woodbury community development director.

Those are the charges that the city may waive for the project. The city could approve the development plans by the end of this year or in early 2011. Arts Connection wants to build in 2011.

The facility is expected to be named the Dorothy K. Merrill Center for the Arts, after the woman who left the big financial gift for the project.