Resurrecting a Historic Theater and Improving the Local Economy

All week, we're sharing stories of Strong Citizens on the Iron Range. They are neighborhood leaders, small business owners and everyday activists doing their part to make the Range a better place. We hope their stories inspire you to get active in your own community.

Mary McReynolds-Pellinen wears many hats. By day, she's a planner in environmental services for St. Louis County, MN. By night, she's a city councilor in her town of Virginia. Oh, and she's also helping to resurrect a historic theater as an arts center for the whole region. I had the chance to ask Ms. McReynolds-Pellinen about the many ways in which she serves the community in a recent conversation.

Rachel: Tell me about your background. Have you always lived in Virginia?

Mary: I was born and raised in a first tier suburb of St. Paul and went to college at Bemidji State. I have a Masters degree in environmental studies. My husband I lived in Bloomington, IN when he was attending college and I worked as a city planner there. When we came back to Minnesota I had a couple different jobs—I worked for MNDOT, 3M, then we moved up to the Iron Range. Most recently, I’ve been working for St. Louis County as a planner in environmental services department. I manage our recycling program for St. Louis County, compost bin management program and other environmental services.

Rachel: I know you run the Lyric Center for the Arts in Virginia, Minnesota and you’re also a city councilor, so I want to ask you about both of those. Let’s start with the Lyric Center. What is the Lyric Center for the Arts?

Mary: Our mission is to provide artistic and educational opportunities for children and adults across the Iron Range while renovating the historic Lyric Building. The Lyric Center for the Arts is housed in an old 1912 opera house that was saved from the wrecking ball. We acquired the building in 1998. We’ve gotten the planning and architectural stuff done since then. Now we’re at the phase where we need the money to move forward. We’re hoping this year to get the complete package to redo the storefront.

Right now, I’m working on building audience and renovating the building at the same time. We have one small space in it that’s an art gallery and an office, and then we’re using the space next door for children’s theater programming and some other things. We also have a literary group that meets once a month to do readings.

Rachel: What are your goals for the Lyric Center over the next five years?

Mary: Our goals are to redo the storefront and the exterior, and to renovate the commercial portion of the building on the street level into a small performing venue. We also want to redo the lobby area and move the art gallery into that. Then we’ll be able to do some more programming, so we can be sustainable once we expand. The building will have a 500-seat theater in the back.

We’re offering performances and other opportunities to help build the audience. Besides the children’s theater program, we have an adult theater program that meets off site, but we hope to move them into the space eventually.

Rachel: Let’s talk about your work as a city councilor. When did you get elected and how did you decide to run for that office?

Mary: I ran because I went to the first Rural Arts and Culture Summit in Morris, MN and in one of the break-out sessions, the discussion was about how art influenced the economy in a rural town. The mayor, who was on the pane,l said he had been telling people to run for years, and all of a sudden someone said to him, “Why don’t you run?” That clicked with me because I’ve been telling people to run for city council for years too. Others on the council also convinced me to run. I was appointed due to a seat vacancy and started in January 2015.

Rachel: What are the main things you’ve worked on as a city councilor?

Mary: Well, it’s very much a cooperative thing.  The city budget always takes a lot of work. I recently got the council to designate a farmers market in town. So this summer we’ll have a real farmers market for the first time. I’m also working on the comprehensive plan for the city. I did a survey of downtown area businesses to help with that.

Rachel: What are your hopes for Virginia and for the Iron Range? What needs to change?

Mary: Over the past hundred years, mining has been entrenched as the industry here, so a lot of the smaller industries are associated with that. I think people have gotten far away from valuing the entrepreneurial spirit and being able to connect to outside the Iron Range for their customer base—whether it’s web-based stuff or tourism. I think there needs to be a subtle shift in philosophy and thought process about what we can do to encourage entrepreneurs.

Virginia is a boomtown, but it actually wasn’t built on mining; it was built on the sawmill industry, then it shifted to mining. The capacity for business growth has been here, but it’s been a long time since there was the need to focus on that. There’s a lot of opportunities for local small businesses to grow and market whatever they make outside of the area, as well as inside the area.

The other thing is, I’m always distressed especially on Main Street, when buildings get knocked down instead of renovated. There’s just a continuing thought that nobody wants them, but I don’t know that the question has been asked of anyone outside the area: Do you want this building to start a business in?

Thanks to Mary McReynolds-Pellinen for her hard work improving the Iron Range community. Read all our Iron Range coverage.

(All photos from Lyric Center website. Top image is a rendering of the future theater space.)

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