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The balcony level of the NorShor includes some of the historic art found throughout the theater. Developer George Sherman briefed the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday about the restoration of the building. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

NorShor restoration project building positive outlook in Duluth

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In a 2011 article explaining how Twin Cities developer George Sherman outlasted the recession with his then-$1.3 billion portfolio intact, one source described Sherman as “more sophisticated” than many of his peers in property development.

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The crowd at the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday at the Kitchi Gammi Club got a glimpse of Sherman’s sophistication. In discussing his company-led $21.5 million revitalization of the NorShor building, the man behind Sherman Associates was both deflective of praise and complimentary of Duluth, advancing the project in subtle ways while leaving the bolder proclamations to his partners in the city’s business community.

“We will ensure sustainability,” said the Duluth Playhouse Executive and Artistic Director Christine Gradl Seitz, whose organization has been tabbed as the steward for the finished NorShor Arts Center — a $21.5 million revitalization of the historic theater on East Superior Street that was described in a promotional video shown to the crowd as presently being “a run-down, boarded-up blight.”

Chamber President and CEO David Ross noted Sherman’s investment was “over $19 million” in the NorShor project and said of Sherman, “He believes in the project and he believes in Duluth. We would be wise to believe in him — and we do.”

By the time he took the podium, the savvy described in that Star Tribune story was on full display. Sherman’s own words described his involvement as more influence than investment.

He was so understated to start, it required Ross to rise from his chair and lift the microphone closer to the developer so the capacity crowd could hear him. One of the first things the crowd heard was Sherman’s effort to scrub his name altogether. He politely asked that the “blurb” about Sherman Associates be removed from the promotional video that was shown before his speech.

He gave a timeline that has been slightly pushed back from original estimates; Sherman said finished architectural sketches can be expected in October, followed by 14 months of construction to start in December. Original reports had the construction starting as soon as the fall.

Sherman shied away altogether from announcing his company’s investment, saying the $21.5 million cost will be a mix of $6.95 million in state grant money secured earlier this year in the legislation’s bonding bill, $7 million from historic equity tax credits and the rest from private donations. Sherman Associates will purchase the NorShor and Temple Opera buildings from the Duluth Economic Development Authority for a reported $2.6 million in a deal that’s expected to close this fall.

A similar project in the Twin Cities would require “two to three larger families making donations,” Sherman said, with Duluth requiring “an altogether different source of finance.”

He described the NorShor restoration as requiring $22-to-24 million to get the project both built and up-and-running.

“It takes capital up front for the first three to four years,” he said.

He estimated that a larger corporation will be needed to operate the NorShor Arts Center for up to five years before, he said, “we convert to non-profit.”

“We want to leave the project with as little debt as possible,” he said.

The project itself was outlined in all of its splendor — with its lit marquee being the beacon for a center that includes a 700-seat theater, a cabaret for more intimate music and events, classrooms for arts education and original NorShor artwork restored to go along with 3-D relief pieces portraying a regional identity lining spiral staircase to the balcony of the main theater. One presenter predicted 200 events happening at the NorShor annually, with a full-service box office staffed daily that will sell tickets to both NorShor events as well as arts events throughout the area.

The Duluth Playhouse’s Gradl Seitz said the NorShor will ultimately reflect the playhouse’s recent production of “Les Miserables,” which was a first-time collaborative of the Duluth Playhouse, the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Ballet. A sustainable non-profit NorShor Arts Center appears to be a common goal.

Buttressed against big dreams for the effort, Sherman wasn’t ready to proclaim mission accomplished. He did talk about using the NorShor Arts Center to draw Minnesota Duluth arts students to downtown Duluth. But true to his sophistication, he kept his comments to process and avoided self-praise and proclamation.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “We believe in Duluth. It’s a great town. It’s going to take everybody’s energy.”

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