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The founder of a black box theater that closed during the pandemic is preparing to reopen at a new location at the edge of downtown Grand Rapids, pending city approval.
Jay Harnish, who co-founded Dog Story Theater in 2008, will go before the Grand Rapids City Planning Commission on Oct. 12 seeking special land use approval to operate a theater at 340 State St. SE in Heritage Hill.
The address is in the Traditional Neighborhood-Transitional City Center zoning district, where theater uses are permitted with special land use approval, per the city’s zoning ordinance.
Harnish signed a lease on the space in August. It sits a few blocks from the theater’s former location at 7 Jefferson Ave. SE, which closed in June 2020 because of the expense of maintaining a lease during the COVID-19 lockdown, the nonprofit said at the time.
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Dog Story wrote on its GoFundMe page that the group’s board of directors has been “continuously” looking for a new space since closing three years ago. The group launched the fundraiser in August with a goal of raising $15,000 toward renovations on the space. As of Oct. 2, it had garnered 90 donations totaling $5,140.
Harnish told Crain’s Grand Rapids Business the current three-member board looked at several other spaces before landing on this one, but none had the potential for as much visibility and foot traffic.
“We looked at places even out as far as Plainfield Township and over by Northland Drive,” he said. “We were looking all over trying to find the right place, and we walked into (340 State) and it was like, we knew in five minutes.”
In addition to hosting plays, Dog Story’s new location will be used for “small non-amplified orchestral concerts, children’s choirs, performance art, artist galleries, comedy and educational talks,” according to the special land use application.
Harnish said the venue will initially maintain a volunteer staff of one to three individuals, including a box office manager, stage manager and production manager/audiovisual engineer. Eventually, he said the organization would like to create paid staff roles for those functions.
He added that the current board is in talks with Grand Rapids-based Kennari Consulting, which helps nonprofits with leadership and fund development, about building out the board and funding structure as Dog Story gets back on its feet.
“Once (the theater) is up and running, then it’ll need to take care of itself a little bit, but I’m doing most of the funding personally right now,” he said.
Harnish said he hopes to continue to see the community rally around Dog Story as it prepares for its next life.
“It’s not a community theater company like Civic Theatre or anything like that; it’s just a theater. But there’s a large community that uses it as their home, different theater groups, and it’s a safe place for a lot of marginalized people, if you will,” he said. “I want people to know that the support behind it means a lot.”
Ling Chen owns the 123-year-old building that also houses Chen’s restaurant Beijing Kitchen, next door to Dog Story’s space.
The suite Dog Story is leasing is approximately 3,400 square feet and most recently housed Joezano’s Pizza, which closed in February.
According to Harnish’s special land use application, the group does not plan to add square footage to the building but rather make slight modifications to the interior. These include adding a barrier-free single-occupant restroom, janitor’s closet, rear egress doors, performance area with seating for 84 people, and a backstage area with a dressing room and two bathrooms.
Harnish said he plans to look at bids for a contractor for the build out after he knows whether the project has been approved.
The nonprofit also is seeking a reduction or waiver of the requirement to provide 21 off-street parking spaces for the building.
In July and August, Dog Story conducted an informal parking survey of the streets surrounding the venue during the hours on Thursday to Saturday nights that Dog Story proposes to be open for performances.
The survey found about 34 street parking spaces are available in the vicinity at the busiest times. That does not include additional parking that is available on Jefferson, Lafayette and Prospect Avenues, according to the survey report.
Dog Story also is in talks with Catholic Charities West Michigan at 40 Jefferson Ave. SE and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi Health and Human Services Department at 311 State St. SE about using their permit parking, as those lots and off-street spaces are primarily used during business hours, rather than in the evenings.
Harnish said the group hopes to open the new theater in January, pending planning commission approval, receipt of building permits and construction timelines.
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