By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK — If all goes well, the sounds along Fort Street will soon include long-awaited work on the Lincoln Park Lofts project, turning the old Park Theater into a dozen residential units atop 1,200 square feet of retail space.
City officials hope that the $12 million investment by the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency will spark more of the same for the struggling downtown district. Mayor Patricia Diaz Krause said last week that the project is set to begin.
“There are construction trailers there,” Diaz Krause said. “That signals the start is imminent.”
The Fort Street theater has a rocky history, including more than 20 years as an adult movie house and controversy including disputes with the Larry Flynt Hustler Club. A 2008 settlement included Hustler selling the building to a noprofit group, and the non-adult entertainment plans awaited funding.
County investment is joined by a Lincoln Park Downtown Development Authority grant to restore the theater’s original facade; across the street plans include another two dozen rental units to be built on Auto Zone-donated land along Electric Avenue.
Grant funds earmarked for Lincoln Park Lofts require that the units are open to occupation by year’s end, representing one piece of the city’s financial puzzle. Diaz Krause said it’s a small step in a likely long journey.
In recent years the city battled against vacant storefronts and foreclosed homes, along with a municipal debt that remains a challenge: officials continue addressing a projected budget deficit, potential layoffs and uncertainty in city hall.
Against that, Diaz Krause saw in 2012 reason for hope in the form of new, if small, businesses in town, restoration work on vacant homes and a sense of community spirit.
“There’s been a lot of progress on the small development front,” Diaz Krause said. “Restaurants and interest in some of the vacant locations by developers.”
The Southfield, Fort Street and Dix corridors welcomed a few newcomers last year — Zorba’s Coney Island, Bread Basket Deli and Billy Sims BBQ — and Diaz Krause said the priority for 2013 is to generate similar interest in the city’s downtown area. Toward that end the city last year appointed Madhu Oberoi as director of the DDA. Diaz Krause said the priority assignment was to generate interest in revitalizing the historic district.
“Businesses need to be convinced why they should be here,” Diaz Krause said. “They need to see that it’s kept clean and that we’re trying to make improvements.”
A sustained summer-long effort was made to free the area of weeds and trash; volunteers spent weekends tending to gardens in public parks and clearing parking lots of debris.
This summer will kick off with the return of a Memorial Day parade in town, a project spearheaded by Chris Dardzinski and supported by local nonprofit groups and city officials. Diaz Krause said the various efforts are part of the long-term solution needed for Lincoln Park to return to financial stability and represent an attractive place for residents or businesses.
“We’re on track, I think,” Diaz Krause said. “I pick up on more community pride and spirit. People are coming out to volunteer and do things, offer their time and skills. They feel more like a part of the community.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected])