That $90 million project is set to start construction in May. Securing the historic tax credit approvals through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. locks in a key component of the financing. The MSO still is confirming the private donations that make up the bulk of the funding, said Andy Nunemaker, board chair of the MSO.
“The two main points of the building are the historic art deco atrium, which is the finest example of art deco decoration in the Midwest, and the rococo theater itself, which will be restored to its original grandeur,” he said. “This is an historic gem that would’ve been lost forever if not for this project.”
The long-vacant Warner Grand Theatre near North Second Street and West Wisconsin Avenue originally opened 87 years ago as a movie palace. The MSO acquired it in December, and plans an extensive project that will restore the theater while also expanding the building. Starting in fall 2020, it will become the new home of the MSO, replacing the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
The $11.1 million represents the second-largest historic tax credit award in state history. The largest, at $12.7 million, was awarded in 2016 for CH Coakley’s planned conversion of its building on North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive into offices, retail and apartments. That project has not begun.
The MSO plans to raise $17 million through state and federal historic tax credit awards, according to a WEDC staff report. Negotiations are underway with several investors that would buy those credits, raising the money for the project’s budget, said attorney Steve Chernof, who has been working with the MSO and is president of West Wisconsin Avenue economic development group WAM DC LLC.
About $21 million in private funding contributions have been secured for the theater construction work, and $48.7 million more are pending, according to the WEDC report.
The tax credits come with strict historic preservation requirements set by federal officials.
“What it tells you at the end of the day is the theater is going to be restored to its former grandeur,” Chernof said.
Federal preservation officials required a creative approach for the MSO’s plan to expand the theater space to the east. Instead of demolishing the exterior eastern wall and building a new one, federal officials require it be saved. So contractors will cut the wall from the building, and in October will inch it eastward about 35 feet. Contractors picked October because, historically, there is less wind that month, Chernof said.
“They have to be very careful,” said Chernof.
Beyond restoring the original building, the MSO will expand it. That includes demolishing the former Kiku restaurant building at Second and Wisconsin to clear land for a new lobby with dressing rooms and bathrooms. The MSO also will bump out the northern wall of the theater building, opening space for back-of-house operations.