Steps from Lake Superior is Duluth, Minnesota's historic NorShor Theater.
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NorShor Theater/Temple Opera House

"Missed Chances," conclusion.

Not A Nonprofit

Sidebar, 'A History of Instability'. Ringsred bought the NorShor in 1982 as a tax shelter, with the idea he might inspire a downtown renaissance. "I had big ideas at the time," he said. "I wanted to preserve something, and at the time it was endangered."

The 55-year-old emergency room physician has acquired several downtown buildings over the years, including the Wabasha Book building on First Street and the Temple Opera Building next to the NorShor.

Ringsred was honored in 1998 by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota for his "consistent, timely and indefatigable work on the behalf of historic preservation in Duluth for over 15 years." Accomplishments cited by the alliance included his investment in downtown real estate, efforts to keep the city's foghorn and a lost court battle to prohibit demolition on the Technology Village site.

Ringsred never operated the NorShor himself, opting instead to hire a string of managers to lease the building. One of those managers, a book publisher named Harlin Quist, created a nonprofit organization called Theatre in the State in 1989. Quist and Ringsred were on the board of directors.

A year later, Theatre in the State agreed to purchase the NorShor for $98,000. Ringsred said the money never materialized. However, the nonprofit was listed as owner on the deed from 1992 to March 2006.

In 1994, Quist moved away. The NorShor closed for 1 1/2 years. After a tussle for ownership, Ringsred assumed control of Theatre in the State in 1995. According to St. Louis County records, $102,000 in construction bills were left unpaid. The debtor? Builders Commonwealth, which Kahn co-owns. With a lien on the building, Kahn began to be referred to as the NorShor's co-owner.

A former Duluth city councilor, Kahn helped create Builders Commonwealth, an architectural and construction co-op. He received a Minnesota Preservation Society Award for his restoration of the former Riverside School.

Since 1995, Ringsred and Kahn have presented themselves to the media, city employees and their own managers as the nonprofit Theatre in the State. But documents from the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office show the state sent a notice of involuntary dissolution to the nonprofit in 1998 for failure to submit required paperwork. Those documents show the notice was sent to the nonprofit's registered address.

When asked about the nonprofit being dissolved, Ringsred laughed and said: "That's funny. When?"

Ringsred said he didn't know the nonprofit had been dissolved: "That's Arno's department, all the mail went to him on that."

Kahn did not return phone calls for comment.

In an April 18 interview, Ringsred said the status of the nonprofit didn't matter because he had filed papers with an attorney to transfer ownership of the NorShor to his own for-profit Temple Corp.

But according to county records, Temple Corp. already owned the NorShor. The deed to property at 201-213 E. Superior St. was transferred in March. The only property Theater in the State owns is at 8-12 N. Second Ave., an abandoned Duluth Transit Authority shelter being used for storage.

This means a nonentity owned the NorShor for nine years.

No one applied for a property tax exemption on the NorShor, but the building owners have had some advantages from the appearance of nonprofit status. Over the years, community members have volunteered to work on the building, donated supplies and attended fundraisers in good faith that they were helping a nonprofit.

Wait-And-See Attitude

In the decade after Quist left, four management teams have tried and failed to operate the NorShor as a successful business. All struggled to book entertainment while also performing triage on the building's aging electrical, heating and plumbing systems.

J.P. Rennquist, the most recent manager, came in as the owner of Wild Goose DJ Entertainment and Speedy Wienie concessions. During his tenure, 13 years of violation-filled building inspections caught up with the NorShor. Duluth Fire Marshal Erik Simonson closed the building in August. Simonson wrote that several extensions had been granted on many different code violations, including poorly functioning panic bars on doors.

"It was so simple it would make you cry," Ringsred said.

Ringsred complained that Simonson decided the building needed a fire alarm system only after the building had been closed. But Simonson said his department has asked for fire alarms since 1989, and the request was also included in the August order of closure.

Ringsred said he was upset with Rennquist because he was not kept "in the loop on this fire stuff." According to both Simonson and copies of fire department correspondence, letters were often addressed to the NorShor manager and always copied to Ringsred, Kahn or both.

Rennquist said he regularly spoke with Ringsred and Kahn about the violations, asking for help because he couldn't afford all the fixes. Rennquist said some violations could have been remedied easily by Kahn's construction business.

"Arno and Eric's solution was to take a wait-and-see attitude," Rennquist said.

Future In Flux

In the short-term, Ringsred said he will open the building for special occasions until he finds a long-term lessee. He downplayed the building's poor condition saying: "It functions pretty well as it is."

But the Zeppa Foundation feasibility study shows it will cost $2.2 million for the building's basic functionality, a price tag that doesn't include historic restoration, furniture or theatrical systems.

Estimates on necessary upgrades and repairs to the plumbing, heating, ventilation and electrical systems add up to $770,000. Those are all areas the building's tenants have been responsible for in the past. The study also anticipates a $139,600 roof repair.

When asked who should plan and pay for the building's rehabilitation, Ringsred said he considers the landlord/tenant relationship to be a partnership. "It should be both our roles," he said. "If we make money, we share in the success. If not, we share in the failure."

Many NorShor advocates who have experience with historic preservation say it's difficult to run historic theaters as for-profit ventures. Those advocates include Duluthian Carolyn Sundquist, who is on the board of advisers for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

There doesn't appear to be any viable nonprofit candidates. The city has a long history with the building, including a loan that wasn't paid on time, so Ness said there would be "widespread apprehension" about a municipal buy out.

Ness believes the NorShor should not be the city's responsibility, but there are ways some sort of quasi-governmental arts authority could play a role in the building's long-term sustainability.

A common solution for down-and-out historic theaters is having nonprofit and for-profit components, said Chris Morris, Minnesota program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Morris said the nonprofit component could accept grants and foundation help, while the for-profit component could take advantage of a federal rehabilitation tax credit, which offers up to 20 percent off qualifying expenses.

As someone who has experience with historic rehabilitation grants at Glensheen, Lawrence said any project must involve restoration experts to gain the confidence of grant-makers and donors. "You don't get those $2 million grants to restore a building unless you've also done the appropriate evaluation phase and planning phase," he said.

Ness agrees the building needs people who can design and fulfill a larger vision.

Ringsred, meanwhile, has no plans to veer from his current management structure, except to stay away from the alternative music and arts scene. He said he's talking with several parties interested in taking over the lease, including a church and someone who would operate the building as a multi-level bar.

"Remember that article in the New York Times last year?" Ringsred asked. "They called the NorShor an 'oasis of culture.' I don't think those days will come again."

"It will be something fairly prosaic ... but at least the theater is preserved, the structure is preserved."


Ringsred's operating structure set to fail, former managers say

Duluth News-Tribune article, part 9a; 'Ringsred's operating structure set to fail'
Duluth News-Tribune article, part 9b; 'Ringsred's operating structure set to fail'
Published as a sidebar to "Missed Chances"
Source: Duluth News-Tribune, May 7, 2006

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