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Douglas County considers transferring ownership of historic theater

City officials proposed renovating 1310-1312 Tower Avenue back to a working theater.

Princess Theatre at 1310 Tower Avenue
The former Princess Theatre building at 1310 Tower Ave. in Superior on Tuesday, May 17.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — The city of Superior could soon be the owner of the long-closed building that once housed Frankie’s Bar.

Originally opened in 1913 as the Theatre Princess, Douglas County’s land and development committee approved a request Tuesday, May 31, to give the building to the city for redevelopment.

Douglas County took the building by tax deed in 2019. More than $31,000 in taxes and $10,000 in assessments were owed at the time.

The building at 1310-1312 Tower Ave., has been on the market for about two years, but interest and a plan to fix it haven’t surfaced in that time, Douglas County Clerk Sue Sandvick said.

“I’m hoping that this proposal is as much a benefit to you as it is to use,” Mayor Jim Paine said. “In your case, I’m hoping to relieve you of some liability of a building that is very distressed in downtown.”

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The building was condemned in 2016 as a danger to human health and safety, and a raze or repair order was issued at that time.

Since it was vacated in 2016 with utilities suspended, the building has gone through multiple freeze-thaw cycles and has experienced water intrusion through frozen pipes, condensation and roof leaks resulting in mold.

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“An abandoned building like this could very easily start on fire,” Paine said. “As you know many of them have. In this particular spot, it could take out the whole block if it did.”

Paine said the city’s goal is to redevelop the building as a working theater.

The city’s historical preservation committee finalized its list of priorities for preservation efforts that will be funded with a $3.5 million allocation from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars, Paine said restoring the Princess Theatre rose to the top of the list.

Paine said the city is proposing to take the building and restore it as a working theater. An outside agency would then operate it on behalf of the city.

“We’ve done this a number of times where we own a building that has community or cultural value, and a nonprofit will run it, often with resources from the city,” Paine said. “That’s how we operate our animal shelter in partnership with you. That’s how we operate our museums, our marina, our golf course.”

A feasibility study conducted by LHB last year put construction costs at more than $1.7 million with total project costs of $2.1 to $2.7 million.

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Paine said the city has the resources to restore the building and would begin that process right away. Funding the operations would go through the city’s regular budget process.

“What we guarantee we can do is save the building itself,” Paine said. “More work to make it a working theater, to bring the lights back to Tower Avenue, but I’m optimistic we can do that as well.”

Douglas County Board Chair Mark Liebaert asked whether the theater would be returned to private ownership.

“That’s not the plan right now,” Paine said.

While it could potentially return to private ownership, he said the theater holds cultural value for Superior, and the city’s goal is to retain ownership of the building.

“I walked past it today; it was in dire need of help,” said Supervisor Alan Jaques. “I don’t think we need to be babysitting it anymore. As a county, it’s time to move on to someone that has a lot more enthusiasm for it, such as the mayor and his crew.”

Jaques said even if the city decided to sell it later to a private enterprise, he would be OK with that.

“They stuck their neck out and taken care of it and fixed the property. They fixed it. Now if they deem selling it to a private entity is the best fit, I’m OK with it.”

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Paine said while the county would lose out on the tax revenue owed, turning the Princess Theatre over to the city would spare the county the higher cost of razing it in the future and could renew interest from businesses that would deem a working theater in the area a desirable benefit.

The committee voted to turn over the building at no cost to the city.

The Douglas County Board will consider the proposal when it meets June 16.

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
What to read next
Read the latest news in the Dispatches from Douglas County newsletter published every Friday.
Online comments will be taken on the plan through Aug. 31.
As reported by Douglas County Circuit Court.
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