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Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness and developer George Sherman marked the planned restoration of the NorShor Theater back in 2013 with a celebration.
The historic NorShor Theatre in downtown Duluth is one City Council approval away from beginning restoration — a project that will mean a long-awaited fix for an eyesore in a revitalized part of town.
The Duluth Economic Development Authority voted unanimously last week to approve a development agreement to refurbish the 1910 theater on Superior Street. Now the Duluth City Council is expected take up the issue Monday night, although some council members have talked about tabling it for a week for further study.
The vision for the $30.5 million project is for the theater to become the hub of the city’s historic downtown, in an area recently christened the Historic Arts and Theatre District.
The NorShor, which took turns as a vaudeville stage, movie theater, music venue and even a strip club, will become a performing arts center providing space for The Duluth Playhouse, one of the nation’s oldest community theaters.
The economic development authority bought the theater, an annex and a neighboring building in 2010 for $2.3 million, ousting the NorShor’s strip club and its related activity.
That “in and of itself, had it stopped right there, probably would have been a positive impact,” said David Montgomery, the city’s chief administrative officer.
But the goal had always been to revitalize the theater as a centerpiece akin to the State Theatre in Minneapolis or the Fitzgerald in St. Paul, Montgomery said.
After years of negotiating and figuring out financing, Minneapolis developer Sherman Associates will take ownership of the Duluth building under the agreement. The developer will have to turn over the reconstructed building to the nonprofit Playhouse, its main tenant, in seven years.
Sherman, which owns the neighboring Greysolon building and Sheraton Hotel in downtown Duluth, will put about $1.5 million of its own money into the project. It also has secured roughly $13 million in tax credit funding. The state is kicking in $7.1 million and the playhouse will be responsible for $4.5 million.
Mayor Emily Larson said the 650-seat theater will fill a need for a higher-capacity space in Duluth’s burgeoning arts scene. The city has a creative economy that generates over $40 million, she said, including a ballet, symphony and opera.
“We really do need one more place to showcase not just our local efforts but touring opportunities that right now pass us by,” she said. “I think this vision moving forward beautifully illustrates who we’ve become.”
Larson said the project, which will receive $7 in federal, state and private financing for every $1 of local Economic Development Authority invested, is a “mindful, calculated amount of risk” for a refurbished theater that will transform downtown.
Developer George Sherman said in an e-mail that his firm is committed to giving back to communities in which it is involved.
“The arts add to the vibrancy of any city. They attract the youth and businesses to come and stay,” he said. “The public/private partnership and the support of the City and the Duluth Playhouse ensure the success of Duluth’s east end as an art center. Art and culture are good for business.”
The reconstruction project calls for building a skyway connecting the NorShor to the Greysolon building, which is connected to a parking ramp.
The development agreement includes clauses guaranteeing that Sherman complete construction and cover all cost overruns, Montgomery explained. It also guarantees that the building will be operated as a community theater.
If approved by the council, the financial closing on the deal is scheduled for late this month. Construction would begin soon after, with an anticipated completion date of December, 2017.
Pam Louwagie | April 9, 2016