TREC Commits $1M to Revive Forest Theater, MLK Blvd

The Dallas Catalyst Project is a three-year commitment by The Real Estate Council Foundation to the Fair Park area of South Dallas.

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More hope is coming to the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard area as The Real Estate Council Foundation committed $1 million in money and services to a key revitalization project.

TREC selected the Forest Theater project to be the first recipient of The Dallas Catalyst Project grant. In addition to restoring the theater and opening it up to for community events, the grant will beautify the exterior of Cornerstone Baptist Church and transform the underside of Interstate 45 into a community gathering place. There are even plans to revitalize an aging retail center into a vibrant 12,000-square-foot mixed-use project.

The timeline for the overall project is 2020.

“It’s not just making it pretty. It’s about that whole concept of the consistent neighborhood feel.”

Robin Minick

“It’s not just making it pretty. It’s about that whole concept of the consistent neighborhood feel,” said Robin Minick, vice president of community investment for TREC. “That this a safe place, a beautiful place. Whether they’re homeless or impoverished, coming into a place that has a nice facade and a good walk up makes a big difference.”

The Dallas Catalyst Project is a three-year commitment by TREC to the Fair Park area of South Dallas.

“All of our resources will be poured into that area, both monetary and from a volunteer and professional services perspective,” Minick said.

For the inaugural year, TREC started with 38 proposals and whittled it down to three projects. The Forest Theater area was announced as the winner Thursday during TREC’s Speaker Series event at the Belo Mansion.

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Elizabeth Wattley, director of strategic initiatives for CitySquare, speaks during Thursday’s event. [Photo courtesy of TREC Foundation]

Elizabeth Wattley, director of strategic initiatives for CitySquare, said she originally envisioned a restoration of the inside of the Forest Theater. But the overall state of the neighborhood, with so many vacant lots, crime, and homelessness, made her realize more tangible exterior improvements were needed.

“We wanted to serve as a catalyst and fit within the grant,” Wattley said. “We knew that opportunity came from the community being able to see the change. It’s one thing to experience it, but being a product of your environment, sometimes the community may feel that there is no forward progress because it can’t be seen and it’s invisible.”

“We knew that opportunity came from the community being able to see the change.” 

Elizabeth Wattley

This comes just a few weeks after TREC hosted a Shark Tank-inspired event where three South Dallas projects received a combined $2.3 million from area investors. That includes Dr. Michelle Morgan’s plan to open a new medical facility called the Legacy of Hope Health and Wellness Center, also on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“That’s going to be a really great synergy with this project,” Minick said. “There are things that are happening around and this is going to be in the middle.”

Mike Geisler, chairman of the Dallas Catalyst Project, said this will bring positive revitalization and change to the Fair Park community.

The keynote speaker for the TREC luncheon, Rob Kaplan, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, praised the project, too.

“I was really impressed with what you guys are doing because you are doing something to move the needle,” Kaplan said.

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Robin Minick of TREC Foundation moderates a discussion with Rob Kaplan, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas president and CEO, as part of TREC’s Speaker Series event Thursday at the Belo Mansion. [Photo courtesy of TREC Foundation]

BRINGING LIFE BACK TO FOREST THEATER

A chalkboard in front of the Forest Theater encourages anyone walking by to write what kind of programming they’d like to see in the theater. They’ve seen everything from book clubs and theater night to cooking classes and music lessons.

The music lessons in particular could be a game-changer for the area’s youth, Wattley said. Right now, there are only 11 students from the 75215 ZIP code attending the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she said. It’s a magnet school that students have to audition to attend and an introduction to the arts and theater could give children a leg up.

The Forest Theater was a happening place when it opened in 1949 and has had many uses over the decades before shutting down completely.

The theater is owned by Linda and Jon Halbert, Dallas residents who were inspired by their own son’s transformation after he discovered his passion for the arts.

GARDEN WILL WELCOME PEOPLE TO CORNERSTONE

Cornerstone Baptist Church provides hot meals and other critical support to homeless people in the area. But the exterior of the building, which used to be a Minyard grocery store, could use a facelift.

This project will create new gardens and landscaping to make the entrance more inviting and approachable for everyone who walks by on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. New lighting also will be a beacon of hope for the people who live nearby and a gateway for those who visit.

FROM HOMELESS CAMP TO COMMUNITY GATHERING SPOT

Longtime Fair Park residents may remember a time before I-45 and U.S. 175 split their neighborhoods. The highways created a haven for crime, drugs, and vagrants.

A third component to the Forest Theater project plan is to transform the cavern under I-45 with paint, lighting, seats, games, and other activities the community can enjoy. There’s even the possibility of a rock-climbing wall.

The Texas Department of Transportation has plans to move on-ramps and exit ramps for that stretch of I-45 through Fair Park. And U.S. 175 also could be altered in future years so it’s a more cohesive part of the community rather than dividing it.

Wattley will work with TxDOT to make sure their improvements are in-line with the state’s roadway plans.

“We just want to have a seat at the table,” she said.

The goal is to create a communal space where people can have fun, take selfies, and build pride in their community.

USHERING IN MIXED-USE RETAIL

An old retail strip center could also get a facelift with new neighborhood services that people need in the area.The 12,000-square-foot center is located just west of Cornerstone Baptist Church.

The retail center, church, area under I-45 and the Forest Theater are all within about 1,000 feet of each other so the project will have an overall positive impact on the region, Wattley said.

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Mike Geisler, The Dallas Catalyst Project chairman, speaks during Thursday’s event. [Photo courtesy of TREC Foundation]

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