Eagan agrees to purchase Caponi Art Park property

The effort aims to preserve the land, ease financial burden carried by art park board

Much of Caponi Art Park is covered with forest that has dirt paths cutting through it. A variety of Tony Caponi’s sculptures are scattered throughout the property, which also contains an amphitheater, a learning center, the Caponi family home and a studio.  - Photo submittted

Much of Caponi Art Park is covered with forest that has dirt paths cutting through it. A variety of Tony Caponi’s sculptures are scattered throughout the property, which also contains an amphitheater, a learning center, the Caponi family home and a studio. – Photo submitted

Starting in 2014 the city of Eagan will own Caponi Art Park and Learning Center’s nearly 60-acre property – a move that will permanently preserve the sculpture-dotted woodland and ease the financial burden carried by Caponi Art Park, the nonprofit that operates the park.

On Jan. 15, the City Council unanimously approved a joint purchase agreement with Dakota County to buy 27.1 acres of the park on Diffley Road for $800,000 – a cost split evenly between the two entities. Council Member Paul Bakken was absent.

That portion of the park – valued at $1.4 million – is currently owned by Caponi Art Park and contains the bulk of its sculptures, its amphitheater and the Caponi family home and studio.

The agreement will give the city – which currently owns 30 acres of the property – possession of the entire 57.1-acre park.

“I’m excited to approve these agreements tonight,” Mayor Mike Maguire said. “It’s a true asset to Eagan that I hope to preserve for generations to come.”

The deal has been years in the making. City and county officials began exploring the possibility of public ownership in 2011 after being approached for help by Caponi board members.

Over the past several years, the nonprofit has struggled to pay its mortgage – which is in the Caponi family name – while expanding the park’s programming to meet growing demand. To date, Caponi Art Park owes the Caponis nearly $3 million, including interest.

“It’s a small organization and the economy has not been very receptive,” said Craig Harris, president of Caponi Art Park’s board of directors. “It’s been challenging.”

Local officials and directors of Caponi Art Park hoped to obtain $1 million in public grants last year but didn’t get the funds.

The city’s purchase agreement is set to close by Dec. 31, 2014, to provide time for the art park board to raise funds to pay toward the remainder of its mortgage.

The board aims to raise at least $450,000 and settle the remaining $1.75 million mortgage with the Caponis, Harris said.

By paying down a substantial portion of its mortgage, Caponi Art Park can focus its efforts on further expanding the park’s programs and improving its facilities.

The park has become increasingly popular over the past five years with attendance jumping from 4,200 in 2007 to more than 18,000 in 2012.

“It’s a wonderful place,” Harris said. “We are thrilled to find a way to sustain it.”

Although the city will own the land, Caponi Art Park will continue to operate the park and its programs. Additionally, 92-year-old Tony Caponi and his wife, Cheryl, 56, will be allowed by a life estate to reside in the home and privately use the studio until they die or choose to move. At that point, those structures will become public.

Caponi Art Park has been a fixture in Eagan for nearly 26 years.

Born in a tiny village along the Adriatic coast of Italy, Caponi moved to Eagan in 1949 and purchased the property between Lexington Avenue and Pilot Knob in the 1950s.

The artist and former Macalester College instructor opened the park in 1987 to schools and other groups. In 1992, Caponi founded Caponi Art Park, a nonprofit aimed at developing the park into a local and regional cultural resource.

Since then, the park has provided free activities and performances by regional artists for thousands of visitors each year.

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