Sale of Avalon Theater paves way for new Bay View movie house
After years of negotiations and many dashed hopes, Bay View residents finally got their wish this week. Lee Barczak, a Milwaukee investor, bought the long-dormant Avalon Theater (2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) Tuesday, and if all goes well, he'll start restoring the classic movie house as soon as this winter.
"There's been a lot of expectations, and we want it to be a terrific project," says Barczak. "Now we ask that people be patient and let us get together a really good plan."
Barczak says his main goal is to turn the Avalon back into a movie theater, and he has already spoken to Landmark Theatres, the same company that owns The Oriental and The Downer.
"There are a couple of interested parties," he says. Despite some rumors, however, Barczak says he hasn't spoken directly to Schwartz Bookshops about leasing a store at the location.
So far, nothing is set in stone, Barczak confesses. The spot could become a full-time theater, a part-time venue or a combination of arts and retail spots, he says.
"Everyone wants to talk about it, but no one wants to commit to it (so far)," says Barczak.
Earlier this year, Landmark management confirmed it was looking into the space.
"We're just looking, it doesn't really mean anything," says Deb Tzortzos, Landmark's Midwest district manager, of Landmark's interest in the Avalon. "We looked and that's it. I don't have anything to tell, really. I guess it's 'no comment,' since there isn't anything to say."
But Barczak is confident he'll find a tenant for his new building in this up-and-coming Milwaukee neighborhood, which he says he's grown to love. He wasn't born in Bay View, but went to the high school that's now Thomas More. He says he's encouraged by the progress the area has already made.
"You've got a lot of activity, and it's good for neighborhoods and the community," says Barczak. "But residents make Bay View, Bay View. I hope that over time this complex will become an arts center for Bay View. That's our dream."
Barczak says he's been investing in small to medium real estate projects for 25 years, but he's never tried anything like this. Currently, he's redeveloping the old Fountain Blue restaurant in Cudahy. He says he will open a café, inn and jazz club there this fall.
Barczak says he expects this project to take some time, since the building requires substantial renovation.
"It's gonna need some major, major work, (but) the building is solid from many perspectives. Our engineer was pleasantly surprised."
Unfortunately, "the cosmetics have been really let go," he says. To get the building back into shape, it will take at least six months.
"And that's probably optimistic," he adds.
The Avalon ceased showing films in 2000. After a number of deals to re-open the Avalon as a movie theater or as a concert venue failed, it appeared a done deal that the building would be converted into office space, quashing the hopes of neighborhood residents dreaming of a renovated movie palace in Bay View. However, nothing materialized until now.
The theater is the city's last remaining atmospheric movie house (with twinkling lights in the ceiling to recreate an outdoor vibe) and was designed by Milwaukee architect and Frank Lloyd Wright disciple, Russ Barr Williamson. It was built in 1929.
According to Barczak, the building hasn't been designated as a historical landmark, which is good and bad. If it had been, Barczak would be eligible for façade grants. However, "any exterior changes can be really difficult," he says.
Barczak also intends to keep retail space in the building, which currently houses Fetish Salon, Front Room Photography and others.
"We want good tenants. We definitely want to have retail space, and the City likes mixed-use space," he says.
"We're really excited to have a new owner," says Neil Kiekhofer, one of the owners of Front Room Photography. "We're anxious for someone to see the potential for this building. We think it will revitalize the Bay View area."
Says Kiekhofer, "With the eventual reopening of the theater, it will bring more business to Bay View and to us, and we hope to be long-term tenants."
Barczak says he's already seen a lot of support from the community and local government, too.
"Ald. Zielinski has really gone to bat for us and wants that center to be an icon for Bay View."
Again, Barczak stresses patience and understands the community has been let down before. He thinks summer of 2006 is a realistic timetable to see a new theater open in the building (and he intends to keep the theater's historic name).
Says Barczak, "We want to take our time and do it right. If everything I have planned comes to fruition, people will be pleasantly surprised. Whether it becomes a full-time movie theater or an arts center, it will be something people want to go to."
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