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Kind of nostalgic: Glenwood man begins improvement to downtown Willmar landmark

Dean E. Peterson, from left, Debra Shriver and the Rev. Paul McCullough stand at the front entrance of the Divine House headquarters, located in the old Willmar Theater building in downtown Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- Dean Peterson of Glenwood grew up in Kerkhoven but hung out as a kid on Fourth Street in downtown Willmar.

"If you wanted to be where the action was, you went to Fourth Street,'' recalls Peterson, 55. "That was before the Kandi Mall was built. It was a happening place. All the main businesses were right there.''

One of those businesses was the Willmar Theater, a grand place to watch movies, as many locals will testify.

The theater was closed in 1980 and the building was converted into office space known as Heritage Square. The structure deteriorated over the years and the property had been in foreclosure.

Peterson, who buys, fixes up and sells commercial real estate, aims to change that. He bought the building on Nov. 15 when the year-long foreclosure redemption period expired and has undertaken an interior and exterior renovation project.

Peterson learned about the building because he sits on the board of Financial Security Bank of Kerkhoven, which held the mortgage.

"The first time it came to my attention that the building would be available for purchase was about a year ago ... then I started watching it and this one-of-a-kind interested me,'' Peterson said. "I knew it had potential, so soon as the redemption period was done, I purchased it.''

Peterson started work right away before the weather got too cold. Contractors have installed new ceiling tile. New carpets will be laid, walls will be painted and the restrooms are being gutted and remodeled. He hopes to have work inside the 25,800-square-foot building completed by January.

In April, work will start on a new roof. Also, the limestone front will be sandblasted and tuckpointed. Even the sidewalk will be sandblasted and shined up.

"Right now it's horrible, and I want it to be the one bright spot in downtown Willmar,'' said Peterson. "I want so when Mr. Engan over there opens his window he looks over here, he's got something to look at,'' referring to Richard Engan who remodeled the former Tribune building across the street for his architectural business.

Peterson said fixing up the old theater "is kind of nostalgic'' and he's renewing old acquaintances.

Peterson has been fixing up and selling commercial property since his family sold their telephone companies. Peterson said he needs to make some money on it but at the same time he enjoys fixing it up.

"I love being a landlord,'' he said. "Now I want to do what I can to help downtown Willmar. We've got to bring people back to downtown. So if I can help do that, that's what I want to do.''

Peterson's sole tenant is Divine House, a program that serves people who have developmental disabilities. Other businesses with offices in the building are 4th Avenue Homes, which serves persons with mental health challenges; Medical Supplies Inc.; and TruCare Pharmacy.

Debra Shriver, Divine House administrator, is one-third owner of MSI and the pharmacy, and Pam Brede and Sue Jensen are co-owners, with Jensen as manager.

Shriver is pleased with the project. Peterson said he plans to have old theater photos in the lobby as part of a historical display.

"I think he's really vested in improving downtown Willmar and is very drawn to the building's historical significance, which is pretty cool,'' said Shriver.

Peterson said he told Shriver that if she signs the lease, "I would spend very significant money fixing it up if you will be the only tenant. I'm going to do all this work for you and you're going to be proud of this building. You're going to be glad to have this as your corporate headquarters.''