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Jim Christianson said he's not the guru of resurrecting rundown old buildings in downtown Bismarck. But he sure has a heck of a good track record. If all falls into place, the president of a Bismarck development group will venture into his fifth renovation project, this one the old GP Warehouse on Main Avenue.

Christianson's Northwest Development Group has signed a contract with McDonald's Corp., which owns the building and land just west of the Main Avenue McDonald's. The plan is to renovate the four-story building and devote most of it to office space. If all goes according to plan, the project would begin this fall and be completed within a year.

The building used to be home to Bismarck Grocery and Front Page Tavern, a watering hole that Christianson patronized in the 1970s and '80s, he said.

"It's got some memories for me," he said. "It's one of the last remaining undeveloped buildings in downtown Bismarck."

Christianson said nearly half the space would need to be leased before financing can be secured.

"We've quietly talked to a few businesses and we've been approached by some," he said.

Nothing is in writing yet, but Christianson said a financial services firm is interested in an entire floor, as is a public relations firm. Another business would like about a quarter of a floor and there's interest in a new restaurant on the main floor.

Each floor has about 7,700 square feet of gross space.

Christianson said most of the businesses he's talked to about leasing space would come from outside the downtown area.

The building isn't much to look at, with some windows open, others boarded up. Christianson said it's structurally sound, but would require major work.

There are a couple of reasons he believes the project can fly:

* It's in the downtown historic district, which was approved in October. That designation brings a property owner a 20 percent federal tax credit on the money used to renovate a building in its historic character.

* The building also is in the renaissance zone, which gives property owners a 25 percent state tax credit on money put into the renovation and a possible five-year property tax exemption by the city commission.

Christianson used similar incentives when his group renovated the Patterson Hotel in 1978, turning the upper floors into seniors apartments. He's done similar projects with the Dakota Stage Theater building, the former Northern Pacific Railway depot that now houses the Fiesta Villa restaurant, and the old Soo Hotel, located just north of the Patterson.

After last summer's Main Avenue refurbishment, and the renovation of two other downtown buildings that are now home to Fleck's Furniture, the downtown area is looking up.

"I think downtown is doing real well," said Scott Johnson, owner of Downtown Furniture on Fourth Street. "I would not want to relocate."

Johnson has been downtown for eight years and said customer traffic is great. On weekends, the customer base expands to people from many other communities.

"What I find really interesting is the traffic patterns, the distance people drive and come downtown," Johnson said. Last Saturday "we had sales to people from Devils Lake, Fargo, Williston, a lot to Dickinson, Beulah and Pollock, S.D."

"I hear a lot of comments that they love to come to Bismarck," Johnson said.

And when they come to Bismarck, many head downtown.

"I've visited many downtown areas and I would say ours is very viable," said Brenda Stone, executive director of the Downtown Business Association.

Stone said the recent addition of Fleck's and Scrapbook Treasures, as well as a renovation project at J&R Vacuum and Sewing, have been positives.

"I think there's a lot of good things going on downtown," she said. "In a couple of months, we'll have new banners on the light poles and we're working on more promotions for the downtown area."

(Reach reporter Mark Hanson at 250-8264 or mailto:mark@ndonline.com.)

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