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'Changing the story': Renovations in full swing at former Last Place on Earth building

Brian Forcier says he wanted to bring a venue for families into the downtown Duluth building that formerly housed the infamous head shop Last Place on Earth.

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Titanium Partners president Brian Forcier describes what is planned for the second floor of the Last Place on Earth building on East Superior Street in Duluth. The area, now gutted, was filled with the old rooms that were a part of the hotel that was orginally in the building. Solve Entertainment will now occupy the space. On the floor above a luxury condo will be built and on the levels below Blacklist Brewing will have its taproom and production facilities. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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Brian Forcier says he wanted to bring a venue for families into the downtown Duluth building that formerly housed the infamous head shop Last Place on Earth.

"It was important to bring a family-friendly piece into this building after what it was used for. It was important to me that the story changes," said Forcier, president of Titanium Partners, which purchased the building last year.

Renaming it the 120E Building after its address of 120 E. Superior St., Titanium Partners has been renovating it for new tenants Solve Entertainment and Blacklist Artisan Ales.

During a news conference at the building Friday, Forcier noted that Duluth's Historic Arts and Theatre District is "on fire" with the recent announcement that long-awaited renovations to the NorShor Theatre had started.

"It's great for our city and I'm happy to be a part of it," he said.

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson noted the effort required to transform the building that housed the Last Place on Earth, which operated at that location from 1996 until it was shut down by authorities in July 2013.

“This building really represents the best of Duluth and the best of our downtown in the sense that this has taken enormous creative vision, a huge risk, a belief in where we’re going and also that belief that this story of what was once here in this building is not the story of who we are as a city, that we are more and we are better than the history of what’s been sold and done in this building, that we are about progress, we are about entrepreneurism, we are about growing a community and investing,” Larson said. “This building really changes the whole story on this block.”

Last Place on Earth owner Jim Carlson is serving a 17½-year prison sentence for 51 convictions related to the sales of synthetic drugs at the store. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this fall whether it'll consider Carlson's appeal to have his federal convictions overturned.

As reported by the News Tribune in February, Blacklist Artisan Ales plans to open a taproom and brewery in the basement and on the first floor of the 120E Building. Forcier said he expects the taproom to be open by Sept. 1. The taproom will have garage doors installed at the front of the building so that on nice days, the doors can be opened to give the taproom on the main floor the feel of an outdoor patio, he said.

The second floor is slated to house Solve Entertainment, which provides an "escape room" experience for adults and older children that involves creative thinking and working in groups to solve a story-based mystery or challenge. In announcing the move from its current location at 408 W. Superior St. to the 120E Building, expected to occur at the end of the year, Solve co-owner Matthew Wagner said Duluth has embraced the company.

"We love bringing people together, and to take a space that saw some sorrow and some pain and transform it into a space where creativity, togetherness, joy and laughter can reign is amazing. We're really excited," he said.

A rooftop deck with a view of Lake Superior will be added to the building for the luxury condo that will comprise the entire third floor. A tenant for the condo has already been secured, Forcier said.

Months of work

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Construction workers were busy hammering and sawing inside the 120E Building on Friday morning as Forcier stood in the spot on the first floor where synthetic drugs once were sold, explaining what's to come for the revamped building. While crews have been working inside the building for months to completely gut it, major construction on the outside of the building is expected to begin next week with scaffolding going up, he said.

Moving up to the second floor, Forcier explained that he heard a year ago that the Last Place on Earth building was up for sale by the federal government after it was forfeited in 2014. Forcier bought it sight unseen - and questioned whether he really wanted to own it once he got a peek inside, he said.

"It was pretty bad. You walked up these stairs, ceilings were falling in, caving in. It was the worst building I've ever seen in my life. But when you buy something from the U.S. Marshals Service, you buy something from the U.S. Marshals Service. So we committed, we went forward with it and what you see today is the culmination of about six months of work to get it to where it is today," he said.

St. Louis County records indicate the sale price was $70,000 - less than half the original listed price of $169,900.

The walls have been pared down to the original brick, the ceilings are in the process of being reconstructed and new windows will be installed in the next month.

The building was constructed as the Delray Hotel in 1908, and the hotel rooms on the second and third floor looked "like you were walking into 1908," Forcier said. The hotel rooms have been demolished and the grand staircase connecting the two floors will soon be gone.

While removing five layers of material on the walls on the first floor, they found a large mural of Duluth on the wall, but it was too damaged by water to be able to restore it, he explained.

It also took extra effort to remove an office from the Last Place on Earth days. The wood-paneled office looked like a 1960s set from the TV show "Mad Men," Forcier said - though it also had bars on the windows, inch-thick concrete inside all the walls and a reinforced steel door, he said.

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"It was pretty much a bunker," he said.

Once the renovation work is completed, the building will have 100 percent occupancy between the condo, Solve Entertainment and Blacklist Artisan Ales, Forcier said.

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