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Developer brings hope and renovation to Mount Clemens

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

After more than a year of neglect, Mount Clemens’ historic Emerald Theatre is getting another chance at glory.

In February, the building at 31 N. Walnut was purchased by developer John Hanna, who owns several businesses in Royal Oak, including the Royal Oak Music Theatre. Business owners in downtown Mount Clemens are saying the theater’s return is part of a bigger upswing for the Macomb County city’s central district.

The Emerald Theatre marquee in downtown Mount Clemens.

The Emerald Theatre, which opened in 1921 as the Macomb Theatre, was designed by C. Howard Crane, the architect behind Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Fillmore Detroit and more. It’s heyday as the Emerald was in the 2000s when it was owned by Stars and Stripes Festival honcho Joe Nieporte and hosted concerts by Kid Rock, the Cult, Alice in Chains and other national acts.

Hanna said it was after he decided to invest in Mount Clemens that he realized the theater needed his help urgently.

Last winter, the foreclosed theater’s heat wasn’t working, and the pipes burst. Michelle Weiss of the Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority called him when she saw water coming out of the walls of the theater.

After reaching a deal over the phone with the lender that had custody of the building, Hanna and his team began their rescue work.

“There was nine feet of water in the basement,” said Hanna. “It was like being in the belly of the Titanic. All you could hear was water running ... there was no electricity, no heat.”

After months of renovations — including removing 300 yards of debris and old wiring, fixing the broken ceiling, and installing a new boiler and marquee — Hanna is ready to open the theater Thursday for a concert featuring Texas alt-rock band Blue October. While another concert is planned on New Year’s Eve with local blues rockers the Reefermen and Howling Diablos, Hanna said he is going to slowly ease the venue back so he’s able to address any issues that come up.

Spirited people

Hanna said it was the people that initially drew him to invest in downtown Mount Clemens, a city with a rich history of leisure dating back to the late 1800s when the town was known as “Bath City” for its abundance of mineral bathhouses.

“All the people are here because they want to be,” he said. “They care deeply about this downtown and it’s genuine, and it’s real. And there’s a real sense of community and a real sense of pride here.”

Hanna tells a story of meeting Bill Vinsaw of Styling Barber, who has been a tenant in the theater’s building since 1964. He knew the barber had been without heat while the building was in disarray and he asked how he could help as the new landlord. Hanna said the conversation quickly turned around to Vinsaw asking how he could help Hanna.

“It blew my mind,” said Hanna. “That is the spirit of everyone that I’ve seen in this town.”

Besides the barber shop, the theater building also includes what was known as the Rock Room, above the Emerald Theatre, which Hanna has also renovated. At 27 N. Walnut, where the bar and restaurant Johnny G’s once was, Hanna has plans to open a Mexican restaurant called El Reys.

He’s not stopping at the theater, either. Hanna also bought the Denver Building that houses Weirdsville Records, Tis Country and other stores as well as apartments.

Hanna says he could potentially buy another four or five buildings in the area.

“(John) has been an amazing asset to our downtown,” said Weiss, of the development agency. “I call him our Dan Gilbert. He sees the greatness in our downtown, he believes in us. The first thing he did was go to our library and get a library card and research our city and find out about our history. Who we are, and we’ve never had a developer do that.”

Business owners striving for comeback

Bar owner Paul Boone opened his first business in Mount Clemens 20 years ago. When Orleans Sports Cafe made its debut in 1996, he says the downtown bar scene was “getting fired up.”

“It took off and everybody wanted to own a bar or restaurant down here,” he said “The right ownership came in with the (Emerald) theater and it took off.”

Five years later, his wife Debbie Boone opened Bath City Bistro, a bar and restaurant that was a minute walk down the street.

Paul Boone said that while they managed to survive the 2008 recession, it was the smoking ban of 2010 that really hit the businesses in the gut. That coupled with the Emerald Theatre and other businesses closing in 2012 caused Mount Clemens to “lose its buzz.”

The renovated Emerald Theatre hopes to recapture some of its past glory when it hosted concerts by Kid Rock, the Cult and others.

“We were calling ourselves the entertainment capital of Macomb County,” he said. “We could. We had concerts ... it was the place to be. The fireworks used to be here, Stars and Stripes Festival ... everything was clicking and then it came to an abrupt halt.”

Now, Boone’s businesses are doing well again and he’s opened a third bar, an Irish pub named O’Halloran’s. He’s stoked about Hanna’s investments and the reopening of the theater. Both Boone and Hanna cite the downtown area’s walkability and easy parking as attractive qualities.

A bright future

Weiss cited other development in the area such as an upcoming sushi restaurant on North Walnut called Sushi and More and an open retail store specializing in repurposed goods called Alleycat Junktiques on New Street.

A few months ago the Loft Fine Art Gallery opened on Macomb Place, near O’Halloran’s. Two existing businesses — Ardis Music store and Champagne Chocolates — have gotten a second life with new ownership.

Weiss said the city also is working on funding for a canoe and kayak launch and boardwalk project at MacArthur Park on the Clinton River. This development would include restrooms, lockers, picnic tables and hydraulic lifts for the boats.

Weiss, whose family has been part of Mount Clemens since the 1800s, said she predicted late last year that great things for downtown Mount Clemens for 2016, and it appears her wish is coming true.

“It’s been so awesome for the downtown business district,” she said. “They have gone through the worst six years (the retail industry has seen) in a long, long time and I told them when John came in and bought the theater: We’ve earned this. It’s been hard.”

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2402

Twitter: @melodybaetens

Emerald Theatre

31 N. Walnut, Mount Clemens

facebook.com/emeraldtheatre

Upcoming Events

Blaine’s Not So Silent Night with Blue October, Wrabel and Blaine Fowler, 7 p.m. Thurs. $7.50.

New Year’s Eve Music Jam with the Howling Diablos and the Reefermen, 7 p.m. Dec. 31. $20

Tickets at eventbee.com