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Plans for theater to help downtown growth

Date: 2/1/2012

Feb. 1, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — In a room in a sub-basement that one expects the Phantom of the Opera to feel at home and amid a hulking and ancient heating system sits a modern boiler quietly providing heat to the city block above it.

This may not be a sexy part of the renovations to the Paramount Theater but as Heriberto Flores explained it is work such as the installation of a modern boiler that will bring the venerable theater back to life.

The Paramount has been, for much of its history since it opened in 1929, a venue that has featured some of the best known names in American show business, theater and films and if Flores is successful, the theater will serve generations to come.

In an interview with Reminder Publications, Flores acknowledged with a laugh that some people were critical of his move to buy the theater last year for $1.7 million from its previous owners Stephen Stein and Michel Barossa. Flores is the chair of Partners for Community, a Springfield-based non-profit that is best known for its services as the New England Farm Workers’ Council.

“At the beginning, people would say to me, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” he said.

For Flores, though, the Three Kings party he hosted on Jan. 7 is an example of his plans for the theater. He noted that members of the area’s Latino community celebrated the Epiphany along side residents of other nationalities.

“All the groups were there,” He said. “The place was packed.”

“I ran into someone today and he said, ‘You’ve got to have more of those,’” Flores added.

The purchase of the theater was not about Flores entering into the entertainment business, but his non-profit’s continuing effort to spur economic development in Springfield.

“The city has so many cultures, so many languages. I don’t see that as a weakness. I see it as a strength,” he said.

He envisions The Paramount as a place for entertainment events, a place where there could be collaborations with the Springfield Symphony and WGBY and a downtown movie house.

The value and potential of the property will increase with the completion of the Union Station renovations, he added.

From its office on Hampden Street, one can spot many of the seven building Flores’ organization owns — buildings that house both commercial tenants and other non-profits. The Paramount building, which includes the theater, offices and three storefronts is another piece of the redevelopment puzzle.

He said The Paramount is “an opportunity to leave something behind beyond what we’re doing today.”

A rejuvenated Paramount fits into the trend Flores sees of people returning to cities where “the existing infrastructure of services is attractive.”

He believes that non-profit corporations such as his are assets with the ability to raise capital and create jobs.

He stressed that the work being done on The Paramount is being accomplished through funds from local banks and private investors.

Flores explained that before the theater can be fully utilized considerable work must be done. The roof and windows will be replaced. A cracked chimney has already been repaired. The name on the marquee will be changed back to “Paramount” and the lights will be energy efficient.

Because of the leaks in the roof, there has been some cosmetic damage to the decorative ceiling of the auditorium. Flores said he has been told those repairs will not be major.

The previous owners redesigned the first floor of the theater installing a bar and Las Vegas-style curved booths in their conversion of the theater into a nightclub. They removed much of the seating to create a dance floor. Flores said he will keep the basic layout on the first floor and is looking at seating systems that can be set up and removed depending upon what is being presented.

The balcony areas will be refurbished and maintained as seating for events. Flores said the view of the stage is perfect from the balcony seats.

He said the popular Indian restaurant, The Sitar, long a fixture in downtown, is returning to its storefront location and Flores is seeking a tenant for the other restaurant space once occupied by Luva. He is hoping for a higher end Latino restaurant in that site.

Flores noted that people were critical of previous projects of his ranging from the small business shopping center in the North End to housing in the Brightwood neighborhood. He noted the shopping center is still thriving and none of the houses he developed have gone into foreclosure.

“If you do nothing, no one is going to criticize you. In my opinion that is a lack of responsibility,” Flores said.

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