Curtain rising on theater’s next act

The rebirth of Burton Heights’ 4 Star Theatre is underway.
Curtain rising on theater’s next act
The capital campaign for the space includes a $5 million goal with about $3 million of the funds planned for the building itself and approximately $1 million for staffing and to support programming. <strong> Courtesy Well Design Studio </strong>

A Grand Rapids man with expertise in bringing old buildings back to life has set his sights on a Burton Heights theater that first opened its doors in 1938.

Marcus Ringnalda is a construction professional by trade and discovered his aptitude for restoring historic spaces statewide while working for a local construction firm. The former 4 Star Theatre at 1944 South Division Ave. became his new passion project when he saw massive potential for the space that once bustled with activity from the surrounding community.

The South Division corridor, a thriving thoroughfare for local businesses in the 1970s, later experienced decreased property values and disinvestment in the area, leading to businesses closing their doors after the installation of U.S. 131, which directed commuters, shoppers and business owners to other localities. Recognizing that the Burton Heights community required investment and community support to unlock its economic potential once again, Ringalda in 2017 purchased the building that had been vacant since 2007. His primary focus of the theater project is to create a neighborhood hub that acts as a driver to encourage economic activity, development and neighborhood engagement, while also attracting visitors from outside the 49507 ZIP code.

With a focus on the Burton Heights residents surrounding the theater, Ringnalda has made it his intent to create an affordable and inclusive community arts venue backed by neighborhood businesses and organizations. To set his plans in motion, Ringnalda started “Friends of Four Star,” a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to bring the theater, a former nightclub, music venue, youth center, church and, more recently, a vacant space, into a “world class venue with a community lens.”

“Because I’ve owned the building for four years, I’ve known a lot of the stakeholders in the neighborhood who are really behind this project,” Ringnalda said. “And then I roll out our branding and our big ideas to get a thousand people in here, and everyone’s like, wait a second, this isn’t what I was expecting. So, there’s something about that opportunity to say, OK, we’re gonna bring people in for low cost or free over the next year. Talk about what we’re doing (and) tell them we want them in here after it’s big, shiny and new.”

Ringnalda said the capital campaign for the space includes a $5 million goal with about $3 million of the funds planned for the building itself and approximately $1 million for staffing and to support programming. The board currently envisions 200 events per year with maybe 50,000-plus visitors. He said neighborhood concerns surrounding the space typically focus on accessibility and whether a flashy, new theater, with what Ringnalda imagines has the “coolest marquee in town,” belongs in the Burton Heights neighborhood, bringing up conversations of equity and inclusion.

“I mean, it’s really a discussion around gentrification. But the flip side of that is, what does a resilient and stabilized neighborhood look like, and having places like this where people can walk and ride the bus to, and work?” he said.

Friends of Four Star Theatre started its fundraising campaign about two months ago, which Ringnalda said has been backed mostly by friends and family with hopes to achieve needed funds for the conversion of the space over the next 12 to 18 months. Phase two of fundraising will focus on traditional community funders including community foundation support and statewide and national campaign contributors.

“Funding capital projects is harder now than it was pre-pandemic because so much of their funding is going to sustaining organizations that really need it and certainly with an eye on social justice and other things as well,” he said. “So that capacity for some of those foundations who might otherwise have gotten behind this already, you know, we’re not operating yet. We don’t have that executive director, so we need to work hard over the next three or four months to be in a good position, to talk to them, to be operating to say, look, maybe some of our staffing is no longer part of that capital campaign. Can you help us put the puzzle pieces together, programmatically help us find that community engagement and address some of those concerns in the neighborhood as an operating entity?”

To help achieve needed funds, the six-person board of directors also plans to focus its search for an executive director who has community credibility, is intentional about providing empowering opportunities for neighborhood residents and can carry out the vision and mission of creating a world-class theater with a community lens.

“So that person would obviously be part of the fundraising in front of the traditional community funders. We want somebody trusted with an authentic connection to the community here, because we think that’s gonna be critical to the vision becoming a reality,” Ringnalda said.

Ringnalda has been intentional about working with neighborhood developers for the restoration of the space, which has an estimated capacity of approximately 1,000 people. To aid with architecture and design planning, Ringnalda has enlisted the firm of the man who first introduced him to the historic building, neighborhood architect Isaac V. Norris Associates, located at Kalamazoo Avenue and Hall Street SE. Other contractors thus far include Monte Cristo Electric, and a joint venture between R and R Mechanical and Alternative Mechanical for plumbing and heating, and Pioneer Construction for some basic improvements. Shortly after an executive director is hired, the board plans to move forward with plans for an RFP process to hire a general contractor.

Pending city and zoning approvals, Ringnalda said the board is hopeful to achieve temporary occupancy of the space by April 2022. Programming for the venue still is being contemplated, and Ringnalda said he and the board are “all ears.” Suggestions have ranged from a community event space to hold a quinceanera for families and a coat or food drive for neighbors in need, to becoming a regional attraction by way of booking bands, comedians and other entertainment options to fill the space.

“The programming (is) gonna take a long time to build out, but that’s the opportunity we have next year. Let’s get a gospel choir in here, let’s get a DJ, let’s do those things from this neighborhood, even,” he said.

Ringnalda said he foresees proceeds from larger events being a catalyst for making smaller community events possible and said the board is intentional about providing incentives and finding ways to attract Burton Heights residents to the space.

“For events that we’re ticketing, we want to find our neighbors here and offer them discounts. We want to offer the venue up for rental to neighborhood businesses and other nonprofits at a discount. And again, we think we’ll be able to serve that well by mixing in, by getting people in here as frequently as possible. So, our board’s vision is very clear about maintaining that accessibility piece.”

Ringnalda said the board’s measure of success will be how many neighbors from Burton Heights come into the theater within any given year of operation, and that isn’t going to happen without being intentional about getting people in the door and designing events to bring them to the space.

“We’re trying to create something different here that feels more like a neighborhood, and to feel like a neighborhood, it better be serving it well. … So, when neighbors, when other stakeholders are like, ‘Some people like me aren’t gonna want to go to this, that or the other thing,’ I’m like, I am all ears. What do you want to go to that recognizes the capacity of this space?”

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