Council Decides Fate of Three Hennepin Theaters

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The Minneapolis City Council approved a controversial contract for the ownership and management of three historic Hennepin Avenue theaters on Oct. 7 after two years of debate. The City will lease the State, Orpheum and Pantages for 30 years to the nonprofit Hennepin Theatre Trust, with lease payments backed by media and entertainment conglomerate Clear Channel Communications.

The council voted 11-2 for the contract, with only members Paul Zerby and Dean Zimmermann against it. “I don’t think the case has been made that this is the best we can do for the city,” Zerby said. He said he was worried that the financial guaranties given by Clear Channel wouldn’t be safe enough. Others were pleased with the result. “We should be proud of the legacy that we are leaving for the theater today,” Council Member Lisa Goodman said.

Over the past two years, opponents of the contract have argued that Clear Channel seeks to build a media monopoly in the Twin Cities. The San Antonio, Texas–based corporation is the nation’s largest radio station owner, with 11 percent of all radio stations in the country, including seven stations in the Twin Cities. It also owns 37 television stations and 775,000 billboards across the United States. Since 2000, its subsidiary, Clear Channel Entertainment, also has become a major player in theater and concert production and venue ownership.

Faced with this enormous media power, opponents of the agreement are concerned that the interests of Minneapolis and Minnesota may be left behind. Although the Hennepin Theatre Trust will manage the three theaters, what’s not clearly spelled out is the relationship between the trust and Clear Channel and the influence that Clear Channel will exert on programming in the three venues. For example, independent local producers may have trouble competing for access to the theatres against big-bucks Broadway productions backed by Clear Channel.

The city has poured millions of dollars into the rehabilitation of the theaters since the late 1980s.

Clear Channel will back the bonds on the $22 million debt, converting them from public debt to private debt. In addition, the agreement frees the city from $300,000 in annual operating subsidies to the theaters. The operators also promise to raise a $10 million endowment and $1.5 million in improvements before the keys will be handed over.