Will Boarding Up The Historic Strand Theater Reduce Interest From Possible Developers or Preserve The Property For Them?

Andrew Trzaska | January 23, 2012

The vacant Strand Theater building in downtown Muskegon Heights is approaching 90 years old and is still a viable structure for occupancy after renovation.

Since it remains empty today and in the possession of the City of Muskegon Heights, should the city board it up in order to secure the building from damage?

Or, would doing so make the space less appealing to potential buyers and possibly stop a chance at being redeveloped?

Spurred by an agenda item to accept a bid for “securing of the Strand Building”, city council members debated the issue before Monday’s full council meeting.

The city recently solicited bids for the work and the city manager recommended Paul Wittek Builders at a cost of $8,700.  This would include “tastefully” boarding it up, according to city manager Natasha Henderson.

Henderson said that her recommendation was made in the interest of protecting the city’s investment in the property. In the hopes of selling the property, they invested $170,000 on a new roof several years ago to maintain the integrity of the rest of the building.

Councilman Vernonell Smith initially questioned the decision to board up the building.  Smith that boarding up the building would put it out of people’s minds and would lead to further neglect:

“The Strand Building is in the heart of Muskegon Heights,” said Smith.  “Boarding all those windows up creates an eyesore in the middle of the city…  It’s like putting a Band-Aid and putting it in the corner.”

Henderson’s recommendation received positive emphasis from Mayor Darrell Paige.  Public safety issues were paramount in the discussion.  Paige painted a picture of high liability for leaving the property unsecured:

“Right now we’re still liable for anything that happens in that building.”

Aside from human security and weatherizing the building, the city manager and the mayor indicated that animal activity in the building deteriorates the building’s environmental quality.

“Not only is [human] liability involved… but there are other problems, being birds and raccoons,” noted Paige.

Henderson cited the smell that the building emanates the summer as a result of this animal activity, and closing up any access points for animals would stop further damage done by them.  This would require boarding up of all windows, including upper floors.

Councilman Smith and Councilwoman Patrice Johnson looked to confirm the tastefulness of a potential board-up job.  While Henderson did indicate the boarding would encompass the whole building and would be done in an appealing manner, Johnson suggested further beautification of the property to spur interest in the property.

Johnson, who works for the Community Foundation of Muskegon County, has brought ideas to the council multiple times about community involvement in the renovation of the Strand, as well as possible fundraising opportunities.

Johnson suggested that the boards be painted with some sort of birthday message to the theater, reminding the community of its historical significance.

“The Strand is older than the Frauenthal,” said Johnson of the former Michigan Theater on Western Avenue in Muskegon, which is about 7 years younger than the Strand and received a renovation over a decade ago.  “I think that’s a really big deal.”

According to cinematreasures.com, a web site detailing the stories of historical theaters around the country, the building’s history extends beyond just being a movie house; its mixed-use design thrived for several decades until it fell on hard times in the 1970s and 1980s.

No official action was taken on Johnson’s request at the city council meeting. The council did vote to award the contract to Paul Witek Builders, located on the edge of Muskegon Heights.  All council members present, including Smith, voted yes on the recommendation.

Councilman Keith Guy was not present at Monday’s meeting.

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst