Nonprofit plans to renovate historic Milwaukee theater into a music hub

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A historic site located on Milwaukee's near west side, will soon turn into an all-ages music hub, thanks to a non-profit called West Side Arts Unlimited.

The original State Theater was built in 1915 and had a storied history. Once a black and white cinema featuring silent films the venue evolved to host live music over time. In the 1970s, it became a popular nightclub known as 'The Electric Ballroom' and later renamed 'The Palms,' where major classic rock acts like U2, AC/DC and The Police performed before becoming household names.

It later went on to be a strip club called 'Hoops'' and to this day, a stripper pole remains inside, and basketball hoops are seen attached to the walls.

Promise Bruce, radio host for HOT 105.7 FM, said he is hoping the space will now fill a void in the community.

"I used to write music, record it, produced stuff, performed before, so I knew what it was like when I was younger to not have platforms and opportunities," Bruce said.

Bruce is currently the vice president on the board of directors for The New State, the new name for the development.

He gave CBS 58 a tour of the inside, which he said was abandoned for two decades until the city acquired it in 2013.

"So when we got it, we got it when it was basically saved from a fire back in 2017," he explained.

The cause of the fire remains unknown, but the City of Milwaukee thought it was a lost cause, with an estimate of about $300,000 dollars in damages. Plans were already in the works to tear it down, until it got bids from locals to save the space. That's when Dima Pochtarev learned about the opportunity.

"I get a call from John Hennessy and he goes 'hey Dima, I don't know if you remember, this is John Hennessy with Hennessy Group, we met like 10 years ago, I showed you a property I was redeveloping when you were looking for a studio space, well it's done now; I'd love to give you a tour of this new space," Pochtarev recalled.

That was in 2018 and soon, the idea of starting a nonprofit began.

"One of the challenges, initially, was because of the fire, asbestos went everywhere so we couldn't get in here... we needed $50,000," he said.

That year was spent fundraising, with a vision to re-develop the 400+ venue and create an all-ages music hub with recording studios. The old bar next door is set to turn into a café, and the green space on the corner of 26th and State St. is expected to be a music park.

A project that will cost approximately $5 million.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in mid-September to commemorate the completion of Phase I.

"We want to celebrate this first milestone but know we have more work to do, and this project is important if you don't know because there's a lot of lack of opportunities sometimes in the city," Bruce said at the ceremony.

He told CBS 58 that creating a safe, artistic space amidst violence and crime often seen in the neighborhood is very much needed.

"I've definitely experienced all the different sides that Milwaukee has to offer and I always tell people like, Milwaukee is a beautiful, ugly city, like, if you look at it one way, you may see all of the ugliness or the toughness or harshness of the city, but if you take a lens and look at it a different way, you'll see how much beauty is in the city that's in the people," Bruce said.



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