Time and again the city takes grief for buying it, usually when public tax money is falling short for other things like plugging potholes.

But the Duluth Economic Development Authority’s purchase in June 2010 of the NorShor Theatre, Duluth’s last historic downtown playhouse, just keeps making more and more sense the more and more numbers that are examined and that emerge.

The city spent $2.6 million for the NorShor and Temple Opera building. As much as it galled some to hand over that much cash to an unpopular previous owner who did little to improve and maintain the building, the city used money that, by law, had to go for downtown and waterfront redevelopment, according to Mayor Don Ness. In other words, and as we’ve written previously, it wasn’t as if the money spent for the NorShor could have been used for city services or to fix streets. Plus, acquiring the building solved the city’s need to extend its skywalk system. Negotiations with that previous NorShor owner had been going nowhere.

Once renovated and reopened, an historic downtown treasure will have been saved, one that’s expected to generate $5 million in spending every year in our community. The 700-seat theater, with two new elevators, is expected to host at least 200 performances and events a year.

Its renovation is expected to cost more than $22 million. Hard construction costs are estimated at $14 million alone. That’s a significant investment in our downtown with no fewer than 12 financing sources being tapped to pay for it. That includes about $7 million in state and federal historic tax credits, $3 million to $4 million in new market tax credits, and $6.9 million from last year’s legislative bonding bill. A dozen Minnesota theaters received bonding money with the NorShor receiving the most. Even if its allocation paled to the $20 million payouts Twin Cities theaters like the Guthrie and Ordway received from past sessions, the bonding money was key to making NorShor renovation plans a reality.

Leading the renovation is George Sherman’s Sherman Associates, which already has invested $55 million in downtown Duluth, according to Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross. Those investments included the construction of the Sheraton Hotel and the renovation of Greysolon Plaza, another historic structure.

“The NorShor Theatre has been empty for too long. It has been cold and damp for too long. And the downtown skyline that once showcased a six-story lighted marquee tower (over the NorShor) has been dark for too long,” Ross said at a chamber-sponsored luncheon Tuesday at the Kitchi Gammi Club in Duluth. “Fortunately the wait is nearly over. The NorShor will soon be full. It will be warm and it will be bright. … (Sherman) believes in the project. He believes in Duluth. And we’d be wise to believe in him. And we do.”

Construction is expected to start at the NorShor on Dec. 1 and last about 14 months. Plans and blueprints are being drawn now. They’re about 85 percent complete, according to Sherman.

“The economic impact of this project … is immeasurable,” Sherman said at the luncheon. “This will be the hub of the Midwest for arts performances.”

Eventually, probably within about five years of reopening, the NorShor is expected to be nonprofit-owned and operated by the Duluth Playhouse, which is celebrating 100 years this year.

“It takes capital up front to get through the first three to four years of putting a project like this together. It takes some development insights and financial insights. But this project is going to be owned and operated by nonprofits,” Sherman said. “We look forward to continuing to invest in Duluth both here and with other housing projects. You’ll see us continue to invest in downtown Duluth for the next five to 10 years. … We believe in Duluth. We love Duluth. It’s a great town.”

With numbers - and there are plenty of them scattered throughout this editorial - to suggest it’s only going to get greater.


Newsletter signup for email alerts

“Make no mistake about it. The NorShor does make economic sense, because when those lights are turned back on it will spark new business. Restaurants and retailers are going to see a boost, and pedestrian traffic is going to increase, and the NorShor will play a contributing role in the revitalization of our downtown.”

Duluth Playhouse Executive and Artistic Director Christine Gradl Seitz, whose organization will run the renovated NorShor, speaking at a Duluth Chamber-sponsored luncheon Tuesday at the Kitchi Gammi Club