Big plans for German Park Amphitheater

An artists conceptual image of possible German Park Amphitheater improvements presented by Bolten & Menk.

NEW ULM–The German Park Amphitheater has been a part of the New Ulm community for over 20 years, but its future is uncertain.

The amphitheater was first constructed in the mid-1990s following the closure of the municipal swimming pool in German Park. In June 1991, the New Ulm City Council chose not to reopen the swimming pool. The old pool was leaking water. Rather than make repairs, the city decided to close the pool and the Park and Recreation Department began looking into new options for German Park.

Plans and specification for the park improvement were prepared in July 1994. The German Park upgrades were planned in phases. The grading of the hillside to create the amphitheater was part of the first phase. The idea for the amphitheater was to builds rows of terraces for seating, but budget constraints resulted in the terraces being carved out of the hillside and seeded with grass. German Park already features a bandstand and the amphitheater was considered a logical addition. 

With the amphitheater in place, German Park became a primary location for musical events. During summer evenings it is common for bands to perform in the amphitheater. The New Ulm Municipal Band regularly play in the park Wednesday evenings. The Monday Music in the Park program has an active rotation of local bands playing. The events are well attended. Around 100 people attend musical performances in the park. It is one of New Ulm’s most consistent community activities 

The Park and Recreation Department has even used the amphitheaters to screen family movies. An inflatable screen is brought onto the stage and families can enjoy a movie on the hillside.

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt The Original New Ulm Band is one of several musical acts to perform during Monday Music in the Park events.

After two decades, the amphitheater is showing its age. Once it was possible for audiences to choose a terrace on the hillside, now erosion has slumped the terraces enough to make them almost unusable for lawn chairs.

During Music in the Park events, Relay for Life volunteers sell popcorn to the audiences. The volunteers frequently travel up and down an eroded hill. 

Barb Saffert said amphitheater shows are consistently well attended, but the ground can be difficult to walk on.

“It’s why the top is so full,” Saffert said. 

It is not unusual to see audiences seated at the top of the amphitheater. The middle seating section is typically empty. 

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt The New Ulm Municipal Band plays a Wednesday night concert at the Amphitheater. The audience watches from the top of the theater due to erosion of the terraces.

Wheelchair access is another concern. A top reason for the project is to make the theater compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The terraces lack access for mobility-impaired individuals, forcing those in wheelchairs to the bottom row of the theater.

This further limits viewing options as spectators are clustered into two areas. Viewers on the top row are frequently forced back into the trees lining German Street with their view obstructed by branches or other spectators. The wheelchair seating at the bottom can quickly fill up.

The purpose of the amphitheater is to give audiences on each level a clear view, but since the terraces have eroded, the only seating options available are balcony or stage front.

Many of those who attend the performances have expressed interest in fixing the amphitheater. Vicky Rolloff regularly attends the musical events and is hopeful the city will make improvements.

“I think it would be nice so the chairs are not near the edge of the hill,” Rolloff said. “I think it would be a real asset to the community.”

The city has been reviewing options to upgrade the amphitheater for years, but the cost to upgrade it remains an obstacle. The city has looked for grant opportunities and private donors to help fund the project. 

The Park and Recreation Department has received multiple pledges and donations including a $25,000 cash donation in 2015 and a $100,000 pledge in 2016. However, these offers were not enough for the city to begin renovations and delays were forced.

In November 2018, Park and Recreation Director Tom Schmitz informed the city that private donors are threatening to withdraw donations and pledges for the German Park amphitheater if no action is taken on the amphitheater by 2019. The council approved moving forward with the design phase. In July, Bolten & Menk gave a presentation to Park and Recreation on a proposed plan for the amphitheater, including concept designs.

The proposed concept would replace the earthen terraces with concrete and included two new ADA ramps to the top of the amphitheater for wheelchair seating. This would create 40 feet of area to accommodate wheelchairs. The existing ramp would also be used for ADA seating on the lower level. Lighting would be added to theater stairs for added safety. The design is estimated to seat 550 people.

Construction is estimated at $776,353.50. The city is seeking bids to determine the actual cost. At this time, cash donations and pledges only cover roughly 60 percent of the cost. Fundraising efforts continue, but the project is currently looking at a shortfall of $318,628.

The city has made no commitment to provide public funding for the project.

The Park and Recreation Department is accepting donations as pledges. Checks can be made to the City of New Ulm and mailed to the Park and Rec. Dept., 122 S. Garden St., New Ulm. Questions can be directed to Tom Schmitz, Director, at 233-2121, ext. 202 or toms@newulmmn.gov

Amphitheater Project Facts:

Current Estimate of German Park Amphitheater Improvement: $776,353.50.

Total Donations and Pledges: $457,725 a short fall of $318,628.

Construction Bids Due: Monday, August 26

Seating Capacity for new amphitheater: 550 over nine terrace levels


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