The Norby Flats project is starting to take shape, and people are noticing.
Exterior renovations began a couple weeks ago, with a fence and orange cones placed along the length of the building's Washington Avenue side, as a safety barrier.
Workers took down the old Norby's Department Store sign late last week, and as of this Thursday, they had removed about two-thirds of the upper-level brick facade that has defined the look of the store since 1959.
The changing face of the building is an ongoing reminder of the end of a long era in downtown Detroit Lakes, as the Norby family ran their beloved store there for 112 years before closing up shop this past summer. The renovation project going on now pays homage to that history, and in a way, the building's future is a return to the past.
The property's new owners are restoring the exterior of the building back to its original look of more than a century ago. They're also gutting and completely reworking the space inside so that it can be used in the same way it was back then, with shops along the street level and apartments upstairs.
The owners, operating under the name of Norby Flats, LLP, include four partners, three of whom are associated with Goldmark Commercial Leasing out of Fargo. They're independently developing the Norby Flats project, with Goldmark handling commercial leasing and a separate firm handling the apartment management.
Jim Buus, president and managing broker at Goldmark, said they've been getting more inquiries about Norby Flats since renovations ramped up this spring. They've had "good interest" in the retail spaces, he said, and so far, "we have one committed tenant, in the furthest south storefront."
He didn't want to reveal who that tenant is, but he did say they hoped to have their business open in June.
There have been a number of calls about the availability of the upstairs apartments, too, he added, "so we feel confident that we'll get those leased out pretty quick."
Norby Flats will consist of 12,000-square-feet of commercial space and 13 efficiency, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom apartments. The interior design is being driven by the architecture of the building, with its brick walls, columns and unique spacing.
Buus said work on the commercial space should be complete by early summer, while the apartments should be ready by late summer.
The construction schedule is still a little flexible at this early stage, he said, since "when you have an old building, there's always a lot of unknowns once you start peeling back the layers."
One of those layers was the brick facade on the outside, which completely covered up the original wall beneath it.
"We got a little nervous" when that facade started coming off, Buus said, but "we're not shocked, or surprised" by what was revealed. "We think we can work with it."
The goal has always been to restore the storefront to its original look, or at least "to as close to original as we can get," Buus said, and after getting a better idea of what's there, the developers still believe they can meet that goal: "It's probably not going to look identical (to the original), but it'll be close to the original character and look of the original building."
Locals and Laker alums seem to be appreciative of that plan. The restoration project is generally well-regarded by the community, judging by casual talk around town and comments made on social media. People have said they're relieved that the building will be put to good use again soon, rather than sitting empty or being torn down, which would almost certainly have a negative impact on the local economy.
A Facebook page frequented by longtime and former Detroit Lakes residents, called Detroit Lakes 50 - 60s Memories, has been posting photos of the Norby Flats renovations, and comments made about the project have been supportive.
As one commenter wrote, "Will always miss shopping at Norby's, but this is going to be a beautiful thing. Huge thank you to the developers."
Another said, "...good to see they are restoring instead of tearing down."
The renovations are about to really get rolling in the coming weeks, Buus said. The remainder of the brick facade will be removed within days, and the windows and other elements of the storefronts will be replaced over the next month. Inside, the apartments are being framed in this week, and plumbing and mechanical work will be well underway soon.
"You'll really see a lot of activity there (over the next two weeks)," said Buus. "It's kind of fun. We're really restoring that building back to what it used to be."