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When the NorShor Theatre opened in downtown Duluth in 1941, it was billed as “the Northwest’s finest luxury theater.” (Photo courtesy of NorShor Theatre)
We can be an impatient bunch here in Duluth. But no matter how long it has taken, there seems to be little reason to knock — and pretty much every reason to embrace and be excited about — the coming rebirth of downtown Duluth’s historic, landmark NorShor Theatre.
Yes, it’s still coming. And yes, soon, even if we have all heard that one before. Here’s some hard evidence this time: The Duluth Economic Development Authority has on its agenda for its meeting Wednesday the long-awaited and so-complicated-they-took-practically-forever development agreements for the renovation project. Then, the following Monday, the Duluth City Council has final approval of those agreements on its agenda.
Construction — actual construction to rehabilitate and restore the once-proud, then-disgraced, and since-abandoned 75-year-old landmark — is expected to be underway in the heart of the center of Duluth by June. We’re talking about a blight-fixing, downtown-reviving, $30 million project that won’t burden Duluth property taxpayers and won’t take money away from city services.
So why not be upbeat?
“I’m so excited for the future of our downtown,” Mayor Emily Larson said in a statement to the News Tribune Opinion page last week. “I’ve been working to make sure that our level of risk is appropriate for the overall community payback, and I am confident about where we are at. I’ve been waiting just as long as everyone else to see this get started, and I’m grateful for everyone’s patience as all parties have taken the necessary time to conduct due diligence. We are ready to move forward.”
“This marks a great milestone,” Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes told the Opinion page. “The Historic Arts and Theatre District has seen such an increase in its energy and demand over the last two years, and much of that has been based on the vision for renovating the NorShor. This (renovation) will bring the NorShor back as the anchor of that district, and the surrounding businesses are so supportive and excited for this project to become a reality. … Our downtown is on a positive pace.”
The NorShor was hardly a beacon of optimism in June 2010 when the Duluth Economic Development Authority plopped down $2.3 million from an existing tax increment financing district, or TIF district, to buy it. The old theater was being used then for adult entertainment. It was a hot spot for gang activity and drug dealing. And fire officials were citing it for code violations.
After taking ownership, the city easily could have just sold bonds and financed fixes on the backs of taxpayers. That certainly would have saved time and hard work. But instead, city officials lined up partners and attracted outside money. And they went to work on the development agreements that now, finally, are ready for review and approval.
The biggest piece of the financing, $7.4 million, is via state and federal historic tax credits. Such credits are sold to private investors to raise money to save historic structures and to reinvest in the aging neighborhoods around them. Minneapolis-based Sherman Associates, which is managing the NorShor restoration project, helped land the historic tax credits.
Sherman Associates also was instrumental, with the nonprofit Duluth Local Initiatives Support Corp., in landing $6.7 million in new market tax credits for the NorShor.
Another $4.5 million is being raised privately by the century-old Duluth Playhouse, which eventually will own the theater and operate it.
An additional $7.1 million for the project is from the state of Minnesota via the constitutionally designated-for-projects-just-like-this Legacy Fund and a grant from the Department of Employment and Economic Development. A refurbished and reopened NorShor is certain to generate a positive economic impact in downtown and in Duluth, state DEED officials agreed.
The final $2.2 million comes from another existing TIF district, one created when Sherman Associates built the nearby Sheraton Hotel. It’s yet more money that couldn’t have been used to fix streets or pay for city services. It’s money that had to be reinvested in public amenities in the area of the NorShor.
To save money, the city rebid the project about a year ago and was able to cut costs by $2 million without affecting quality. In addition, the city and Sherman Associates are working with historic-renovation experts, firms that have completed similar projects in the Twin Cities, Cleveland and elsewhere and who know how to get them done well and efficiently.
“Duluthians have been patiently and eagerly waiting for the NorShor project to get underway. We are finally at the point where all the legal work and paperwork are completed,” said David Montgomery, the city’s chief administrative officer. “Over the next 20 months, Duluth will get to experience the exciting rebirth of the NorShor Theatre as it becomes the new jewel on Superior Street.”
In all, nearly 90 percent of the financing for the NorShor’s rebirth are from noncity sources. The return on public investment has been calculated at an eye-popping $7-to-$1.
And, in addition to reclaiming a blighted property, this project allows a skywalk extension the city was obligated to complete but that didn’t seem likely under private ownership, and it gives Duluth an acts-attracting venue of a size currently not here.
More than anything, the new NorShor promises to be a point of pride for Duluth just as historic theater renovations have delivered so positively in so many other communities.
News Tribune Editorial Board | April 2, 2016