Open Window Theatre postpones productions until building meets code

| Susan Klemond | April 12, 2016 | 0 Comments
Open Window Theatre’s Jeremy Stanbary is trying to address unexpected debt as a result of building code issues at the Minneapolis facility. Stanbary, who co-founded Open Window with his wife, Sarah, has had to postpone the spring performance due to the added expenses. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Open Window Theatre’s Jeremy Stanbary is trying to address unexpected debt as a result of building code issues at the Minneapolis facility. Stanbary, who co-founded Open Window with his wife, Sarah, has had to postpone the spring performance due to the added expenses. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Through the plays it stages, Open Window Theatre aims to show God’s redemption in the midst of human problems.

Now the Minneapolis theater itself is hoping for that redemption as its founders, staff and board of directors trust that God will bring good out of the postponed spring production and unexpected debt as a result of building code issues they say should be their landlord’s responsibility.

The theater’s request last year for a building permit to expand the space it leases in a former warehouse near the Basilica of St. Mary drew the attention of city inspectors, who raised concerns about zoning and other code compliance issues that Open Window Theatre co-founder Jeremy Stanbary and his legal counsel say are the property owners’ responsibility. To date, the theater has had to pay fees of nearly $10,000 in order to operate. Some of that went toward a fire inspector to be present at each performance of its winter play, “Everyman.”

It will accrue more charges and fees until the issues are resolved.

The solution could require improvements to the entire 40,000 square-foot building. Stanbary, who co-founded the theater with his wife, Sarah, in 2011, thinks the owners should pay for bringing the building up to code and is considering the theater’s legal options.

Key to success

Open Window Theatre stages plays inspired by a Catholic vision of the arts, including stories about St. Thomas More and St. Maria Goretti, and St. John Paul II’s “The Jeweler’s Shop.” It also produces works with implicit Christian themes such as C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which it performed in the fall.

Key to the theater’s continued success are maintaining its current mission and location, and building on momentum gained during the past five years, said Mark Blando, an attorney and Open Window Theatre board member.

As the building housing the theater is now for sale, Open Window is seeking investors to buy it, as well as launching a fundraising campaign to offset costs and provide future stability, said Stanbary, who with his family attends St. Joseph in West St. Paul.

Early in 2015, a neighboring tenant moved out, and Stanbary saw an opportunity to expand the theater’s space to 7,300 square feet, adding about 40 percent more seating, additional bathrooms, a scene shop, lobby and backstage space, he said.

Assured by building owners Kristi and Zev Oman before moving in that the space was properly zoned for a theater, Stanbary discovered during the expansion that it required rezoning and didn’t meet other codes. The owners were reluctant to pay for the required rezoning and to address building-wide code issues, so Stanbary received permission to go through the process on their behalf.

The city approved the theater’s request to rezone the property for theater use last year, but Open Window faces more challenges in getting a certificate of occupancy, which the building as a whole and every other tenant lack. Ultimately, Stanbary and his legal counsel believe the property owners are responsible for obtaining it.

Inspectors are requiring the theater to submit a proposal addressing fire codes and other issues, raising the possibility of a building-wide sprinkler system. Inspectors planned to close the theater pending completion of the process, but instead allowed it to stay open under the requirement that it pay a fire inspector to be at each performance.

Safety measures

Stanbary said the fees have constituted an unexpected expense, including postponing a production of “Best of Enemies” by Mark St. Germain until the fall.

“That fire watch is really just a slower death by financial strangulation,” he said.

The fire watch was a temporary compromise until the space is brought into compliance, said Steve Poor, director of development services at the City of Minneapolis’ Community Planning and Economic Development office, which has worked with Open Window on code compliance issues.

“It’s an extremely rare accommodation that we made, and it’s not that we put small business in a bad place,” he said. “We’re asking them to not let the public into a dangerous environment. We found a stopgap measure so that they wouldn’t have to give up an entire season.”

According to Blando, city records show that none of the spaces in the building or the building as a whole have a current certificate of occupancy; the last certificate on record dates back to 1969. So far, Open Window Theatre is the only occupant that has been affected. Other tenants include offices, gyms and other businesses. Spaces Unlimited manages the building.

Blando and his family, who attend Holy Trinity in South St. Paul, are season subscribers and support the theater’s mission to influence the culture through the arts.

“We think the service we’re providing to the community is vital and something you don’t see in the theater community anywhere else in the Cities or really very much in the rest of the country,” he said.

The city’s objective is ensuring code compliance, and it doesn’t generally determine who makes the changes — whether it’s owners or tenants, said Doug Determan, CPED deputy building official.

“We just need those safety measures in place for it to comply with the building code before we can give the go-ahead,” he said.

With these challenges, Stanbary believes God has a plan for the theater.

“I have seen miracles get us to the place we are,” Stanbary said. “I don’t believe God will abandon us now. There is no redemption without the cross. Our expansion in 2015 was a huge sign of success, and that’s also brought with it big crosses.”

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