Don’t doubt the power of the $6.95 million the city of Duluth landed in the state bonding bill this legislative session for the renovation of the historic NorShor Theatre.

No, it wasn’t the final piece of financing for the expected $22.3 million project, but it was the piece to ensure that the others happen, making the project a go, finally - and a boon in the rebirth of what once was an aging Old Downtown but now is a budding and emerging arts and too-hip-for-words district.

“There’s a cascading effect here. The state support for this project was a key component triggering the rest of the pieces to fall into place,” Duluth Mayor Don Ness said in an interview late last week with the News Tribune Opinion page.

“You look five years ago, there was a strip club operating out of that place and the Last Place on Earth (store was) a blight on the neighborhood,” the mayor said. “And now we have the possibility of making the NorShor really the crown jewel of Superior Street. It could be a draw that will bring hundreds of people into our downtown a couple times a week, and those folks will be supporting the local businesses in that area. … I think there’s also a symbolic importance to revitalizing Duluth’s last great old theater.”

The NorShor traces its roots to 1910 and the Orpheum Theatre at the same site. That Classical Revival-style theater was one of Duluth’s premier vaudeville houses. But by World War II vaudeville was dead and the Orpheum had to be reinvented. It became the NorShor, a premier art deco movie theater with its entrance on

Superior Street rather than off Second Avenue East. The new NorShor featured a 125-foot-tall exterior tower of porcelain and shimmer. With its 3,000 lights, the tower was visible for up to 60 miles, beckoning moviegoers who praised the place’s pageantry and class. Generations of Duluthians created fond family memories at the NorShor.

But by 2006 the theater was in rapid deterioration not only in its physical condition but in how it was being treated and in how it was regarded by the community. When it opened as a strip club and police calls and other reports suggested drug-dealing, prostitution and other unsavory activities were taking place in the once-proud building, the city jumped to action. The Duluth Economic Development Authority bought the NorShor and the Temple Opera buildings four years ago this month for $2.6 million.

The city often has been criticized for the purchase.

But the city used money that, by law, had to go for downtown and waterfront redevelopment, Ness argues to this day. It wasn’t like the money spent for the NorShor could have been used for city services or to fix streets. Plus, acquiring the building allowed the city to extend its skywalk system.

“If we hadn’t taken ownership of the building … we would have continued to have a strip club there with gang activity and prostitution and drug dealing. And that’s in a prominent place on Superior Street. It would have been a continual black eye on that part of downtown,” Ness said. “And the building would have eventually fallen apart. The capital investment we’re making now would not have been made, and it wouldn’t have been too many years in the future before that building would have had to be torn down.” Much like the Palace Theater had to be in Superior, despite a herculean grass-roots effort to save the historic structure.

Returning the NorShor to its former glory is expected to require more than a year of construction, beginning, hopefully, later this summer or this fall. Financing is needed first, of course, but that’s a challenge that just got a whole lot easier with the state bonding allocation. Contributors can give with confidence now that the project indeed seems to be happening. The bonding money carries that much clout.

A $2 million, grassroots, public fundraising effort is about halfway to its goal, Ness said. Expect donations to start picking up. And expect efforts to land grants, tax credits and other financing pieces to fall into place with a bit more ease. Money already has been lined up from the National Trust Community Investment Corp., the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society, and elsewhere.

Also helping to assure that the NorShor renovation gets done - and gets done right - is that the Duluth Playhouse has been identified as the facility’s manager and operator once the reconstruction is complete.

And then there’s the developer pegged for the project, none other than George Sherman, the heavyweight, gets-it-done force behind at least a dozen construction and reconstruction projects in Duluth. His hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in our city already include the new Sheraton Hotel and the remodeled historic Greysolon Plaza, both within a block of the NorShor. He has a huge stake in making sure the NorShor becomes the jewel Ness and others envision and for which all of Duluth can hope.

“This could be an economic engine for the city of Duluth,” Sherman said in October of the NorShor, which is again to be topped by a landmark tower of lights. The new NorShor - with a 700-seat, stadium-style, balconied, live-performance theater - is expected to generate an estimated $5 million to $6 million of annual economic benefit.

“If you look over the last 15 years, starting with the technology village construction, this part of downtown has seen a revitalization,” Ness said. “(The NorShor renovation) is going to be a really critical piece of the puzzle that’s going to pull all the elements together. Personally I think it will be transformational for Old Downtown. It’ll make this part of downtown a destination not only for locals but for the broader region. To have a true arts-and-culture district that will feature top talent and wonderful nightlife is desirable. You currently can’t find anything (like that) north of Minneapolis.”

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