A makeover, new management for iconic Como Park pavilion

Lake Como pavilion
The pavilion on the west shore of Como Lake will be known as Como Dockside and undergo $200,000 in improvements in early 2015, according to St. Paul officials.
Liala Helal / MPR News 2013

Updated at 4:15 p.m. | Posted at 9:21 a.m.

The proprietors of the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in downtown St. Paul and the 331 Club in Minneapolis will take over the iconic pavilion on the west shore of Como Lake.

How St. Paul could have saved big bucks by ousting Big Bear earlier

It will be known as Como Dockside when they take it over Jan. 5. The new operators, Jon and Jarret Oulman, will be responsible for day-to-day operations and maintenance, as well as a spring renovation.

The city expects a formal re-opening of the facility in "late spring" of next year. Mayor Chris Coleman said he expects the deal to make the pavilion, just east of the Como Zoo, "a vibrant destination for residents and visitors alike."

"Dining on the lake," Coleman said. "Dock top dining. It's going to be great."

The deal comes after the city forced out its current tenant, coffee shop Black Bear Crossings on the Lake. City officials said the business wasn't maximizing the potential for the park setting. Concessions like Sea Salt Eatery and The Tin Fish in Minneapolis parks attract throngs to their facilities in the summer and reportedly generate more than $1 million a year on average.

The lease for Black Bear Crossings is up at the end of this month. That 2009 lease had an optional five-year extension at the discretion of Black Bear Crossings owners, but the city decided to oppose allowing owners David and Pamela Glass to stay in the park building, terminating their contract and citing delinquent rent payments.

Black Bear fought the termination in court. In August, the city settled with the couple for $800,000, one of the largest legal settlements in city history.

Now, St. Paul officials want to move past the dispute and compete with other attractions, like the pavilion at Minnehaha Falls and the Minneapolis Lake District.

"We have a managing partner that has a rental company," Jon Oulman said. "They'll have canoes and paddle boats and an electric guided dining boat, where you can go out with two to six people and rent a picnic basket with us, and a jug of wine and go out on the lake for an hour.

There's a serious side to this leisure business, though.

Dockside will have to pay the city more than four times the rent Black Bear Crossings paid. The deal also calls for substantial improvements, including a new dock, sound system upgrades, more outdoor dining options and a ground-level concession stand accessible from the popular trail that rings the lake.

Oulman said traditional offerings like the Music in the Park concert series and free community meeting space will be back in the pavilion, but visitors will see a wider array of options, even touring shows that might warrant a cover charge.

But he also is aware that it's in a residential area, and the new operation will need to be a good neighbor. He said the business won't succeed if it's just an open air version of his St. Paul night club.

"There's a lot of things that won't automatically transfer over, stuff like the culture and some of the music and the menu and stuff like that," Oulman said. "Because that's a bar."

City officials also say they've learned their lesson from the Black Bear debacle. They say they've vetted the deal with outside experts and put in specific performance benchmarks that make it easier to replace the operator if things don't work out as expected.

"They're very strong in the areas of community engagement, customer service, along with reinvestment into the facility, the gross revenues, the hours of operation and contract compliance," said Jessica Brokaw, who helped negotiate the terms for the city.

The pavilion still has a few private events scheduled through the end of the year. It is expected to be shuttered Jan. 4 for renovations and reopen in May. The new lease runs through October 2020. The deal still awaits formal approval from the St. Paul City Council which is expected on Dec. 17.

A release from the city spells out a list of upgrades it expects in coming months. They include:

• $200,000 in capital investment in the building by June 1

• A guaranteed minimum of $500,000 in payments to the city through 2020

• Expanded minimum hours

• Breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings

• New recreational amenities, including bocce ball courts, rental equipment and picnic tables

• Summer concession stand with direct access from walking trails

• At least 100 events on promenade and stage overlooking the lake

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