The Stillwater City Council, at its meeting on June 1, approved a permit for the Zephyr Theatre allowing the nonprofit to host 18 outdoor events each month on Thursdays through Sundays during the summer season.
Last year, the Zephyr hosted 42 socially distanced summer gatherings with parking lot seating between July and October because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Zephyr submitted an application this year to continue hosting outdoor events, even though Gov. Tim Walz pulled all COVID restrictions last month.
Zephyr Theatre Executive Director Calyssa Hall told the council that the theatre found by adding this to the Zephyr’s toolkit it really helped the theatre find a sustainable income stream.
“Our eventual goal is a 330-seat auditorium,” Hall said. “(The parking lot) provided us a gathering place to gather the community in a larger and more public way than we had been able to do before … It really is an earned-income revenue stream we found through COVID.”
With the larger gathering space, The Zephyr could reduce admission to a $10-15 suggested donation instead of charging $30 ticket insides shows.
“Part of our mission is to be a gathering place for art, artists and the community,” Hall said. “We really believe that this concert series allowed for us to be able to do that. Not only to fund some of our other operations, but also as an entry point for so many more people in the community.”
City Planner Abbi Jo Whitman brought the application for City Council approval because of two concerns: Parking and noise.
The Zephyr’s application went before the downtown parking commission, and it stated if the Zephyr is going to use the parking lot for another use for more the half the month, it should pay parking mitigation fees. Those fees will cost approximately $480 per month.
In April, the council heard several requests for temporary outdoor seating, Whitman said, and most were approved. The Zephyr’s request for its outdoor event series differed slightly because it was requesting to use outdoor amplification.
“Outside amplification wasn’t really pondered as part of the temporary outdoor seating program,” she said. “When we talked about it as a staff we were concerned about bringing a use permit amendment to the city’s planning commission for wholesale changes to the use permit given the fact that we did hear from some members of the neighborhood who are concerned the noise had been a disturbance in the area.”
The application states the theatre will be purchasing an upgraded sound system to mitigate noise.
“Kind of a more is less approach instead of one single speaker system, they would use a multitude of smaller speakers that have very specific directional throw patterns that are being aimed right toward the audience,” Whitman explained.
The Zephyr’s application also says show times will vary, but all will end by 10 p.m., and will be held each weekend Thursdays through Sundays.
“But that doesn’t necessarily really mitigate the parking issue on the north side of downtown where’s there’s a limit to parking,” Whitman said. “There is concern there will be spillover into the private spaces particularly to Terra Springs.”
Residents in that condo complex submitted comments both for and against the Zephyr’s outdoor events.
Hall said the theatre is happy to pay the parking mitigation fees. She also stated that not everyone attending the outdoor shows park nearby as some have dinner and will walk from downtown restaurants.
Hall explained how the upgraded sound system will be used throughout the season.
“If there’s a specific complaint we can actually go to that person’s residence and test for frequencies, figure out the frequency that’s a problem and make the adjustment to our sound system,” she said.
Hall added they created neighborhood advisory councils so any complaints are dealt with immediately.
The theatre will mainly host concerts as music didn’t receive as many complaints as one specific playwright: William Shakespeare. The loud Shakespeare play dialogue drew the most vocal opposition from neighbors.
“The speaking of Shakespeare; the yelling of Shakespeare was the main issue,” Hall said.
Therefore, Shakespeare’s plays will return to Stillwater area parks and stay out of the parking lot.
Staff recommended approving a partial application and only allow the Zephyr Theatre to have 10 events for the season to work as a litmus test to see if outdoor events could work in harmony with the neighbors.
However, all councilors voiced strong support for the Zephyr’s mission and voted 5-0 to allow the theater its wish of 18 events each month.
Mayor Ted Kozlowski said one reason he supported allowing all 18 events each month was because it was a permit and there is a solution if trouble arises.
“If the neighbors do get up in arms and start storming the gates of the council chambers, this is something that can be revoked if it does disrupt the neighborhood in a significant way,” he said.
Councilor Mike Pohlena attended several of the Zephyr’s events last summer. He was more concerned about motorcycle noise than from the outdoor concerts.
“The motorcycle noise was a lot worse than the music of Kirk Jorgensen,” Pohlena said. “What I really like that they’re doing is they are bringing the arts out to the public.”
Councilor Ryan Collins asked for an estimate of how many shows per year the theatre need to do to make the investment in the upgrades worth it.
Hall estimated it would take about 10-12 shows per month to make it worthwhile, but 18 each month would be a much safer bet.
Kozlowski was more concerned with the garbage gathered from hosting outdoor events more than the parking or noise.
Hall assured the mayor and council that they will keep the outside neat and tidy.
“I promise you it will be gorgeous,” she said.
The mayor reiterated that the Zephyr Theatre is a nonprofit organization.
“People aren’t getting rich from having events,” he noted. “You’re doing this so you can actually do nice things to the space and be able to provide the community with a really cool asset, you need to be able to generate some revenue in order to get the funds to clean up the place.”