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Votes Needed to Make Project Walnut a Reality

June 26, 2010

The Walnut Lounge sits dark, dusty and empty. But by entering the former downtown bar and restaurant in a national contest, a local group hopes to give the Walnut new life.

The Mansfield Art Center and the North End Community Improvement Collaborative are pitching "Project Walnut: Reclaiming Urban Spaces for Young Performers and Artists" for the Pepsi Refresh Everything Grant Challenge. Their proposal was one of 1,000 the soft drink giant accepted from around the country for its monthly contest to win $250,000 in funding for a community project.

Pepsi will fund the top two vote-getters from a monthlong online election. Project Walnut was ranked 124th this week.

Mansfield Arts Center director Paul Kemmerling said $250,000 could renovate the building at 111 N. Walnut St., which fell vacant in September 2007 when the once popular watering hole closed.

Kemmerling and North End director Deanna West-Torrence want to remake the Walnut Lounge into a state-of-the-art practice and performance space for aspiring musicians, artists and poets.

"The Walnut Lounge is in close proximity to the theater, dance studio and art gallery on Main," West-Torrence said. "It has great space and a good location, perfect for what we were looking for."

West-Torrence, a former city councilwoman who has long been active in north end revitalization efforts, said winning the grant would reopen at least one of the many vacant downtown buildings.

"We're going to market Project Walnut as a regional project, focusing on getting our community more involved and interested in the area," Kemmerling said.

He said project organizers were reaching out to young people especially, with the goal of helping to rebuild Mansfield into a prospering community.

"We have an enormous talent pool in Mansfield," Kemmerling said. "As a community we have been talking about what Mansfield's future will look like, and have realized that it is dependent on our young creators."

The original structure was built in 1900, but the Walnut Lounge languished in recent decades. Two years after the tavern went out of business, the property and its misshapen dual buildings fell into foreclosure. It was sold at sheriff's sale in March 2009 for about $43,000 to Richland Bank, which last week sold it to the Bissman Company for $22,000.

Several local performers already have gotten into the act of trying to revive the plum-colored site. Two six-minute videos are featured on YouTube, highlighting the ingenuity and passion of the people who might one day inhabit the place.

"The future is all about creative renovation," Kemmerling said.

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