GRAND RAPIDS, MI — About six years ago, when real estate investor Marcus Ringnalda first walked inside the long-abandoned Four Star Theater on South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids, he saw potential.

Yes, the 1930s-era community theater was in rough shape. Today, its marquee is covered with peeling paint and rust, the carpet is littered with bits of shattered glass and cat feces, the toilets are busted up, and the occasional door is tagged with graffiti.

But, as a historic preservation specialist, Ringnalda knew that with the right touch, the building could be transformed into hub for artists, entertainers, community events and private parties in the Burton Heights neighborhood.

“I’ve been through really messy projects in the course of my career, and you turn them into something beautiful,” said Ringnalda, a construction consultant who purchased the theater in 2017 for $160,000. “I just saw an amazing opportunity for this space.”

Turning that opportunity into a reality is no easy task.

More than four years after closing on the building, Ringnalda is still in the conceptual stage of the project. The work that has been done has largely been behind the scenes. He’s created a nonprofit to oversee the redevelopment and long-term vision for the building. He’s formed relationships with neighborhood leaders and business owners.

And he’s working with fundraising consultants to launch a capital campaign. He wants to raise $4 million to transform the dilapidated theater, which was once eyed for demolition, into a source of community pride.

“Every day is another step towards that goal,” he said. “It’s a big project but we try to take it one step at a time.”

Neighborhood leaders are rooting for him.

“We need a lot of sparks to get some revival going in the neighborhood,” said Leonard Van Drunen, a finance professor at Calvin College professor and property owner who has rehabbed blighted buildings in the neighborhood. “Four Start theater would definitely be a spark. I mean, probably a pretty big spark.”

Burton Heights, where the theater is located, was home to a thriving commercial corridor along Division Avenue in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Van Drunen said. But retailers suffered in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as more people bought cars and moved to the suburbs.

“This neighborhood, Burton Heights, became underinvested,” he said. “A lot of the stores there and the theaters there basically closed down because they couldn’t bear up under the competition of retail going out to the suburbs, 28th Street, the mall and so forth.”

Neighborhood leaders are hoping to change that, and they say the redevelopment of the theater is one piece of the puzzle.

“It’s like a diamond in this corridor,” said Angelica Velazquez, the owner of La Casa de la Cobija, a nearby clothing store.

Renovating the theater is important because it could serve as a space for community gatherings and other events, something that’s now missing along the stretch of Division Avenue that runs through the neighborhood, she said.

“We don’t have any space where we can go and enjoy or be together,” Velazquez said.

The one-screen theater opened in 1938 with seating for 90 people, Ringnalda said.

Forty years later, it transitioned from a community theater to a music venue, with acts like Joan Jett and Devo performing there, he said. Then, in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it became a night club. The marks of that period can still be seen today with its aging neon lights hanging from the walls and ceiling.

“The last use was as a youth center, a religious-based youth center, and that was over a decade ago,” Ringnalda said.

Renovating the building will take time — and money.

Ringnalda said the Four Star Theater nonprofit has launched the “quiet” phase of its capital campaign a month ago. He said he’s giving “targeted potential donors and opportunity” to contribute before kicking off a more public, fundraising effort.

“We have about $50,000 in the bank right now,” he said. “We hope that changes rapidly.”

Another challenge for the project is parking. While the building has capacity for hundreds of people, it’s parking lot now has space for only about 20 vehicles, Ringnalda said.

In addition to fundraising consultants, Ringnalda said he’s working to connect with marketing and public relations professionals to help him tell “the story” of what the Four Star Theater could be.

He also wants to in the near find an executive director to create a vision for the theater and its programming. At that point, Ringnalda would step away from that work to focus on the construction and historic preservation work associated with the project.

“We’ve realized that to be successful we’ve really got to hone in on the vision of what this is going to be,” he said. “The best way to do that is to hire the person who’s really going to implement that vision. Hopefully, yet this year we are able to hire someone who really takes my place as the face of this project.”

While there’s a lot of work to do, Ringnalda says he’s confident a restored Four Star Theater will one day be a reality.

“I am hopeful that within two years of now we’ve broken ground here,” he said. “I probably would have told you that almost two years ago. We have a lot of due diligence to do about what is the operational cost going to be, but those are exactly the kind of meetings that are happening right now.”

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