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NorShor nears finish line: Final push to restore historic theater by December deadline

Renovation work continues Friday afternoon in the NorShor Theatre with work on a new stage, orchestra pit and acoustic tile on the walls. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Construction workers work on the lower and balcony seating sections of the NorShor Theatre Friday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

After years of planning and 16 months of construction, the renovation of Duluth's historic NorShor Theatre is finally nearing completion.

It has been a challenging project by all accounts.

"There was an extraordinary amount of reconstruction work that was unforeseen, and we definitely hit Duluth rock, so we had to manage that," said Rich Kiemen, senior vice president of construction for Sherman Associates, which redeveloped the building and now owns it.

Tim Huber, project manager for Johnson Wilson Constructors, the general contractor on the NorShor project, described the old theater as a solid structure but one that also has seen some unorthodox work since its original construction.

Huber said it has been a revelation to see how the building has been "hodgepodged together" since it first opened as the Orpheum Theater in 1910.

"It has been very interesting. We've found a lot of old history," he said.

In addition to old murals and artwork, workers have uncovered much of the building's original craftsmanship.

Some of the discoveries have been expensive, however. Huber said that when preparations to install an orchestra pit in the old theater began, part of the original concrete stage was removed to reveal that it had been poured directly over bedrock. Workers would need to blast away the rock below to make room for musicians.

That was a disappointing day, he recalled.

"With a building of this type, we used every bit of the contingency that was set aside for unforeseen conditions that we had to navigate," Kiemen said.

In light of the greater-than-anticipated expense of the renovation, Sherman Associates decided shortly into the project to forego earlier hopes of recreating the iconic tower that once stood atop the building. But Kiemen said the project really wasn't scaled back in any other aspect.

"We looked at it (the tower) from many different ways, but we just couldn't make it work. That would be the one and only piece of the project that had to go. But all the other components that should make it a good theater for the Playhouse, we hope, have been incorporated into the building," Kiemen said.

The NorShor has been acrawl with activity. On any particular day, you'll find 40 to 60 workers on site. The renovation has been underway since June of 2016, yet Huber said his team has had to complete the job by year's end.

"It's a flat-out miracle that we're nearly done," Huber said on the worksite Friday afternoon.

If the theater is not completed this year, some of the tax credits that helped to finance the project could be put at risk.

But Kiemen remains confident the renovation will meet that Dec. 30th deadline.

"The seats will be going in in mid-December. That will be one of the last pieces, and then we've got to go through the commissioning of the theater both from an acoustical standpoint and the HVAC, but everything is still tracking good for us to get our certificate of occupancy on or before the end of the year," he said.

Christine Gradl Seitz, executive director of the Duluth Playhouse, said technical crews will have their work cut out to mount the first production, the musical "Mamma Mia!" in just one month.

"It's an aggressive schedule to have 30 days to get in there and get the lights focused and the sound balanced and be ready to open up the doors Feb. 1," she said.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson expects the theater to serve as a linchpin in the city's emerging Historic Arts and Theater District.

"It really anchors the vision of what we think this neighborhood can and will become," she said.

Larson credits her predecessor, Mayor Don Ness, for having the faith and vision to take on the project and true community teamwork for seeing the historic restoration forward

"We're taking the best parts of what has been and we're laying on the best of the new," Larson said. "I think the people of our city are going to be wowed and proud."

Heather Rand, Duluth's business development director, anticipates the total cost of the NorShor will likely come in at around $31 million — about $500,000 more than initially estimated. But she noted that Sherman Associates set aside contingency funding for the project and will pick up the tab for any cost overruns.

"The city's obligation has not increased," she said.

The Duluth Economic Development Authority acquired the NorShor Theatre in 2010 at a time when the building was distressed and was being used as a strip club venue.

"In this case, we were working to prevent the further degradation of a cherished building," Larson said.

The authority has invested a total of $4.5 million in the NorShor — about $2.3 million for the building itself and another $2.2 million in tax-increment financing funds to assist with its historic restoration.

The state of Minnesota also provided $7.1 million in support for the project.

Sherman Associates has invested $7.5 million in equity and new market tax credits. The firm also expects to obtain $7.4 million in federal and state historic tax credits when the renovation is complete.

The Playhouse aims to raise another $4.5 million for the theater, which it will eventually own and manage.

Gradl Seitz said the Playhouse already has commitments for more than $1 million in contributions, and she expects fundraising efforts to accelerate as the NorShor's opening nears.

"I think some of what's helping the momentum to build now is that people can actually see that the project is nearing completion. For so many months, the work was just going on inside the theater, and I would receive comments like: 'What's going on? Is that actually under construction?' And I would think: 'You have no idea how much is going on. There have to be 50 people with hardhats in there right now," she said.

"But now that the exterior is being addressed and the marquee, and we've been able to get some people inside and do some mini-tours along the way, I can see everyone getting excited about it," she said.

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