Dallas Forest Theater Restoration Seeks Neighborhood Revival

One-third of needed funds have been pledged

NBCUniversal, Inc.

The new plan to renovate the old Forest Theater on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Dallas also calls for revival of the South Dallas neighborhood around it.

A group called Forest Forward is behind the plan.

"We have the passion, we have people that want this building to open and restore it." Forest Forward CEO Elizabeth Wattley said.

The theater was segregated when it first opened in 1949 on what was then called Forest Avenue. The S.M. Wright Freeway was built right beside the theater in the 1950’s and as the neighborhood changed, the theater became a gathering place for the African American community as a movie house and then a nightclub.

The Forest Forward website says Tina Turner, Prince, Gladys Knight and B.B. King performed at the theater.

But, in recent years the building sat closed and decaying.

So, scores of people were there Friday to celebrate the announcement of the new plan from Forest Forward.

“And we’re not going back. This has gotten to the point of no return and the Forest Theater will be a sustainable organization that brings arts and education to the community,” Wattley said.

On the team is developer Jack Matthews who has experience with big projects and restoration of old buildings. Among other projects, his firm Matthews Southwest developed the Southside on Lamar lofts in a former Sears warehouse and the Omni Dallas Convention Center Hotel.

“Our expertise is made up of a bunch of mistakes that we remember. So, we're using our expertise to help her not make those same mistakes we made,” Matthews said.

In addition to renovated performance and gathering space, the plan also calls for a restaurant, partnership with the Dallas Independent School District for a cradle to college education program and new affordable housing nearby.

A Forest Forward Board member is Former Dallas City Council Member Diane Ragsdale. She has experience building affordable housing in South Dallas as the Executive Director of the Innercity Community Development Corporation.

“The theater is a catalytic force to revitalize without displacement and with community input.” Ragsdale said.

The zip code in the area is 75215 and $75,215 is also the fundraising goal for the project. A pledge of $25,000 is in so far.

Other upgrades are happening in the area.

Down the street on Martin Luther King Boulevard, St. Philips Church is renovating a strip of retail space as a community improvement.

Around the Corner on Ervay Street, Cornerstone Church recently opened a food store.

“Being able to partner and collaborate with them gives us a leg up,” Wattley said.

Matthews said native Dallas singer Erykah Badu first introduced him to the Forest Theater. Badu made an earlier renovation of the space which has since been purchased by the Forest Forward group.

“This is just an incredible building with so much history. It's just got to be done,” Matthews said.

Ragsdale said Matthews brings important support for success.

“He has the talent and skills to make it happen,” she said.

Ragsdale said she has lived in the 75215 zip code area her entire life and partied at the Forest Theater in the past.

"Yes, 75215 needs to be revitalized. I do believe this organization, Forest Forward, can indeed be that catalytic force," Ragsdale said.

Larry James, CEO Emeritus of the Dallas non-profit agency CitySquare is the Forest First Board Chairman.

The Forest Theater was initially part of the Interstate Theater chain. It was built by developer Karl Hoblitzelle who also built the Dallas Majestic, Lakewood, Inwood and Circle Theaters.

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