Ordway Center plans expansion

Ordway Center
The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, in downtown St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Bo Hakala

The proposal is the brainchild of the St. Paul Arts Partnership. Formed last year, it comprises the Ordway and its three main tenants, the SPCO, the Minnesota Opera and the Schubert Club.

The Minnesota Opera's Kevin Smith is the current chair of the Arts Partnership Board.

"The arts partnership has studied over time different scenarios, different ways that we can enhance the schedule opportunities at the Ordway Center, so that we can all continue to grow and expand," Smith said.

The focus ended up on doing something with the McKnight Theater. It's the Ordway's second stage, a 300-seat venue in one corner of the Ordway Building.

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It's a proscenium stage, designed for musicals like Broadway shows. It's not great for classical music and it's small. As a result, the SPCO doesn't play there.

"The acoustics are a little bit compromised, and we have always known this. It's to be expected in a hall like this," Smith said.

But the partnership wondered -- what if a larger, acoustically superior hall could be built on the same footprint? It would give the SPCO a better place to play and free up the mainstage for the opera, and Schubert Club performances, while allowing the Ordway to book other shows.

Smith says an architect's study has found it could be feasible.

"It would require fundraising, yet to be determined, and still quite a bit of architectural planning," Smith said.

Smith stresses the proposal is still in its early stages. There are no designs beyond rough schematics, no budget announced and no timeline.

He says if further study proves the project is viable, he hopes the Arts Partnership can make a formal announcement later in the summer.

If it does go ahead, Smith would like to see the project completed in the next five years.

The proposal comes as, across the river in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Orchestra is raising money for a $90 million renovation of Orchestra Hall. Smith says he doesn't see the projects as necessarily competing.

Gwen Pappas, communications director at the Minnesota Orchestra, agrees. Pappas says the Minnesota Orchestra supports the SPCO in its quest for a better sounding hall. She also says fundraisers tell her proposals like this have to stand by themselves.

"If the community is excited about what you are proposing, and the new heights you say it can bring your organization to, then that is what creates fundraising momentum for any organization," Pappas said. "If several projects have that going simultaneously, there isn't a reason why they can't all have that momentum if our projects are aligned properly."

Of course, everyone acknowledges this is happening in tight economic times.

Kevin Smith emphasizes the Arts Partnership will be conservative in making its final decision about whether to proceed with the Ordway expansion project.

A representative of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's office says the city has been involved in the discussions, and see the new hall as a welcome addition to downtown. The city has not been asked for any financial involvement so far.