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'I'm very hopeful': Dallas mayor tours Forest Theater, boasts potential for economic development in South Dallas neighborhood

The nonprofit Forest Forward is working to revitalize Forest Theater. Mayor Eric Johnson believes it could be a catalyst for retail growth and mixed-income housing.

DALLAS — The historic Forest Theater in South Dallas is on the cusp of change. 

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson is optimistic about the plans for revitalizing the iconic theater. It’s why Johnson took time to get an exclusive tour of the theater and view the nonprofit Forest Forward’s design vision this week.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in the Forest Theater,” Johnson said as he walked the space, beyond the stage, which once housed hundreds of orchestra seats.

“It’s beautiful. It’s got a lot of character to it. And it has a lot of great potential,” Johnson added.

The mayor viewed posters and diagrams illustrating the innovative design plans to transform the 45,000-square foot space into art, entertainment, and community hub.

“What stands out to me the most is this is an opportunity to really transform this part of South Dallas,” Johnson explained.

South Dallas is a large area. On one end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, it’s anchored by Fair Park. Plans to redevelop that area are also underway.

On the opposite end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard sits the Forest Theater. The mayor and Forest Forward staff believe the revitalization could be a catalyst for economic development, including retail growth, and mixed-income housing.

“This area right here is prime for development through this project. $50 million, potentially, being invested in this project alone, and maybe $100 million for the surrounding area to create, really, an arts complex,” Johnson explained.

The once-segregated theater became a go-to spot for Black performers and patrons. The venue hosted feature films and attracted a variety of national acts. However, the theater sat vacant for several years.

“I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful. I’ve also, sort of, been frustrated by the fits and starts over the years with different efforts to revitalize this particular property. It is an iconic property,” Johnson said.

The plans for the property include a state-of-the-art performance hall and partnerships with Dallas ISD. There will be music bays, design studios, and conference spaces for the community. There are also plans for a new restaurant, green space, and a rooftop café.

“This is a massive project and it requires all hands on deck,” said Elizabeth Wattley, President and CEO of Forest Forward.

The nonprofit announced its capital campaign to the community in November 2021. The organization continues its fundraising efforts.

“We are looking to close a $15 million gap so that we can keep our commitment to the community and open the doors of the Historic Forest Theater. And we plan to start construction in Q1 of 2023.” Wattley explained.

The cutting-edge vision for the Forest Theater is something Mayor Johnson is describing as a win-win for the City of Dallas.

“This is just, yet, one of many things we are doing to help bring our southern sector to life. And to really give folks in this part of the city what they’ve always deserved,” Johnson said.

For more information about the revitalization plans and fundraising efforts for the Forest Theater visit www.forestforward.com.

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