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Institutional Dining: Soccer Stadium Brings Large Scale Dining Options

Many issues are in play as the Allianz Field Major League Soccer stadium prepares for a spring opening in St. Paul’s Midway area. What won’t be in place for the season opening, and likely for much of the season itself, is a proposed commercial development district on University Avenue near the stadium.

Still, at least two property owners have already thrown their hats in the ring for on-sale liquor licenses within walking distance of the new stadium. More are expected in the future if two proposals materialize: for commercial development districts and for a community benefits fund.

City officials, who have discussed the commercial development district concept for the past few years, had hoped to have as many as 17 University Avenue area commercial development districts through the neighborhood, planning commission and city council approval process by now. The districts are a tool St. Paul uses to cluster restaurants with liquor licenses and entertainment venues together. One longstanding district is in Cathedral Hill, in the Selby-Western avenues area.

The districts are proposed for locations in the St. Anthony Park, Merriam Park, Hamline-Midway and Frogtown neighborhoods. Many would be near Green Line light rail stations. It’s not clear yet how many of the 17 proposed districts would actually come forward. The city would also recommend how many liquor licenses are available in each district.

City staff in the departments of Safety and Inspections and Planning and Economic Development last met with neighbors in July 2018. But the proposal has been slowed by other initiatives and with a change in the Ward Four City Council office, as Mitra Jalali Nelson took office last summer. A planned fall 2018 community review process was postponed.

Nelson’s legislative aide, Matt Privratsky, said there is still interest in seeing the commercial development district proposal go forward. But because that would take months, the districts won’t be in place for the entire 2019 soccer season, if at all.

A second initiative that could also shape the hospitality community around the stadium is a community benefits fund. A city council resolution passed when the stadium plan came forward calls for the team to participate in such a fund.

A fund proposal is to be unveiled soon by area district councils Union Park and Hamline Midway Coalition. At a recent meeting, assistance for existing businesses, including bars and restaurants, was cited as a priority. The area includes a mix of older bars, including the iconic Turf Club and clusters of African and Korean restaurants on North Snelling Avenue.

“The need for assistance to business is one of the issues we’re hearing about,” said Ward One Council Member Dai Thao. That’s especially true for immigrant-owned businesses, most of which are area restaurants.

Gene Gelgelu, who leads the African Economic Development Solutions nonprofit, said there is excitement as well as apprehension about the stadium. A community benefits fund could be an asset to businesses dealing with change, especially the hospitality community.

More than 70 people attended a November 2018 meeting with city council members Nelson and Thao to discuss what such an agreement could mean, and what a related community benefits fund could support.

Hearing ideas is critical to the success of a community benefits fund, the council members said. “We want to make sure that the team and the city are committed to an agreement that works for the entire community,” Thao said.

“If we proactively define our vision (for the agreement), the stronger it will be over time,” said Nelson.

The task force hoped to have a report completed and ready in January (as of press time, a report was not released), said Hamline Midway Coalition board member Mike Reynolds.

Who contributes to the fund, how it is governed and what funds will be used for are recommendations the task force is working on. While there’s a focus on using some funding to mitigate neighborhood issues tied to stadium events such as traffic, parking, transit and pedestrian safety issues, other focuses are to promote brick-and-mortar development. Several speakers brought up the emerging bar and restaurant community.

But some current and prospective hospitality businesses aren’t waiting for the fund or for commercial development districts to take shape. Two area property owners have already applied for liquor licenses and have started the city and community review processes. Neither one has announced firm plans yet.

The former Hot Rod’s bar and restaurant at 1567 University is under new ownership. Late last year the Midway Entertainment Group filed with the city for liquor licenses and an entertainment license that would allow amplified and non-amplified music, dancing and sports such as volleyball or broomball. The group’s contact is David Tolchiner of Tolch Properties, which owns the vacant lot west of the Hot Rod’s building. Hot Rod’s closed and the property went on the market last year.

To the south in Merriam Park, near the Selby-Snelling intersection, The Guild of Mn has filed for liquor licenses and an entertainment license for amplified and nonamplified music for the former Photographer’s Guild storefront at 161 N. Snelling Ave. The location in recent years has hosted a limited number of music and arts events under the banner of the WACPAC or Whimsical Alternatives Coalition Political Awareness Consortium.

And Dan O’Gara, whose family owns and operates O’Gara’s Bar and Grill at Selby and Snelling, is considering hosting the traditional marches to the soccer stadium after its new establishment opens in 2020. O’Gara’s is being rebuilt as part of a mixed-use project.

“We love the idea of the fans’ march to the stadium and we hope to help it continue,” he said. 

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