Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, May 3, 1999

Barth brothers go downtown

By Sue Halena
Reprinted with permission from the St. Cloud Times

Mark and Dan Barth were both born and raised in Howard Lake attended St. James Lutheran School, and were graduates of Howard Lake High School and St. Cloud State University.

The brothers Barth are doing their bit to preserve downtown St. Cloud.

After two months of planning, painting, papering and sanding, Mark and Dan Barth - owners of Pioneer Teleproductions - are ready to use the former County Stearns Theatrical Co. stage as a new sort of performance area.

Where ticket holders once found laughs and drama, Pioneer will create videos and possibly infomercials or corporate Web broadcasts for businesses and institutional clients. Community groups will be able to rent the space as well.

Pioneer bought the historic, 85-year-old building Feb. 1. The theater group had owned, and later leased the space, from the St. Cloud Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Just this week, the Barths decided on a new name for the building: Pioneer Place on 5th.

The purchase gives Pioneer Teleproductions room to grow after doubling its work force the past two years. Pioneer will keep its existing offices at 110 l0th Ave. N., St. Cloud.

The granite pillars and the facade of Pioneer Place won't change except for some trim and sign work. Its designation to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 restricts changes, and the Barths want to keep the unique architecture anyway.

Inside, Pioneer is preserving wherever possible the woodwork, light fixtures and even bathroom fixtures in what originally was built as an Elks Lodge.

Phase I of the project called for renovation of the main floor, which includes two leased offices. Altobell Imagery moved last week into an office that features an original brick fireplace and leaded-glass windows. Karen Gruber, an accountant, is scheduled to move into the second office in May.

Phase II covers remodeling on the second floor, where the Barths and Pioneer's marketing staff will have offices by the end of this month. Those four rooms, facing Fifth Avenue, had been used as sleeping "chambers" and later as apartments. Two additional offices are available by lease on the second floor.

Remodeling of the first two phases is costing Pioneer nearly $60,000. Although the Barths did much of the work themselves, they left electrical, plumbing, heating and window projects to professionals. Mark's wife, Julie Barth, advised the brothers on paint and wallpaper choices.

Phase III, the remodeling of the basement level, has no definite timeline because Pioneer is content to lease that area to County Stearns for rehearsal and set-building. The theater group performs at the Paramount Theatre, but requested space of its own.

The heart of Pioneer Place is the studio - the area that prompted Pioneer to purchase the building for $86,000. Pioneer had occasionally leased the former New Tradition Theatre on St. Germain Street until the space was committed to a church.

Dan Barth asked the HRA if he could lease the former County Stearns stage. When he heard the building was for sale, he pitched the idea to his brother. Pioneer made a bid, and soon they were signing closing papers.

"The HRA was super to work with," said Mark Barth, founder and chief executive officer of Pioneer. The new owners have already shot a video in the sound-tight studio area. Altobell has already used it for portrait work.

And the ideas keep coming.

People are coming out of the woodwork with projects that could use the space, Mark Barth said.

One of Pioneer's more promising prospects is that of Web broadcasts, where a St. Cloud-based executive could present a live message to corporate audiences.

"We want to give them the venue to do that," said Pioneer President Dan Barth.

Pioneer also wants to lease the studio for independent film showings, small theater performances or even poetry readings - though they stress they are big fans of the Paramount Theatre and intend to complement, not compete with, its operations.

"We want the community to know it is for them," Dan Barth said.

To expand the studio floor space to 1,700 square feet, Pioneer reduced the number of purple-cushioned seats to 96. Dan Barth, himself a pianist, expects to bring a piano into the studio.

The Barths envision uses for even the antiquated parts of the building. Actors who put in a grueling day in the studio could freshen up with a shower that will be installed in the original claw-foot bathtub in a second-story bathroom.

Among the finds in the building: a wall covered with newspaper and magazine pages from the 1960s; an original light fixture that matched one already in place on the fireplace in Altobell's office; and a huge floor urinal valued at $1,500. (The urinal is too special to leave the building, Mark Barth said.)

The Barths credit earlier tenants and owners with keeping the building in relatively good condition, making their transition easier. And they're glad they can expand downtown.

"Mark and I absolutely love downtown St. Cloud and think it's coming back, and we want to be a part of it," Dan Barth said.

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