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New owner shares vision for Stockton's former Miracle Mile Empire Theater building

The city of Stockton settled a lawsuit involving the building's former owner and tenants for $1.6M.

STOCKTON, Calif. — White planks of wood still block the sunlight that used to illuminate the businesses along the southerly Miracle Mile stretch of Pacific Avenue in Stockton.

The landmark marquee above the Miracle Mile's promenade building near Pacific Avenue and Maple Street still bears the city name.

It's been six years since the city of Stockton abruptly shuttered the prominent building, forcing nine small businesses to close. The structure still stands despite being badly vandalized and gutted by several fires.

"The homeless were constantly penetrating the building, different areas. There were tent encampments along the exterior," said Tina Wells Lee, President of the Miracle Mile Improvement District board. "A couple of years ago, that last fire really did it in and it was sad because if you looked at the back side of the building, it looked like a bomb went off. It looked like a war zone."

Briana Buenrostro took over the salon across the street almost six years to the date the building was first boarded up.

"It's abandoned," Buenrostro said of the vacant building, feet away from her new Miracle Mile business. "It does definitely need the remodeling done, it will bring a lot of attention, more people."

The city's move to close down the building citing code violations sparked nearly six years of litigation.

In an April settlement obtained by ABC10, the city of Stockton agreed to pay the building's former owner, Christopher Bennitt, $1.64 million while admitting to no wrongdoing.

Before the legal dust settled, local attorney and Miracle Mile property owner Allen Sawyer settled on his own idea: to buy and revitalize the land.

"We just think it's a perfect time to be down on the Miracle Mile and try to bring it back to what we think it could really be," said Sawyer, who used to frequent the Miracle Mile while studying at the University of the Pacific. "We think it's a gem of the city."

Sawyer's first move was to secure the building.

"It was in deplorable condition and not because of the previous owner, because when it became abated at that point, a lot of squatters came in, it was hard to secure, fires started," said Sawyer. "It seemed like a minor problem was exasperated and turned into a horrible problem for the whole district and I hope we learn from that mistake."

Now, it's time to design. Sawyer expects to have design concepts ready for city council approval within the next couple of months. He expects groundbreaking to follow soon after.

"There's a good chunk, the actual part where the movie theater is, that will have to be totally torn down. There's part of the building that could be salvageable," said Sawyer. "We have some big ideas. We would love to keep the sign if possible... we've heard some crazy potential estimates on what could be required (to renovate it)."

As plans are being drawn up, excitement is growing for Lee. She says in addition to keeping spaces open for small businesses, one idea being discussed is adding new apartment units.

"That is such a key anchor to the classic Mile and these folks have been great stewards," said Lee. "We are so excited about their potential plans for the future, getting that area back up and rehabbed and letting this area just shine as it has historically done in the past."

Lee described the move as an investment into the community. Alexa Mejia, who works at the salon across the street from the building, agrees.

"I feel like Stockton will make the difference," said Mejia. "I'm excited for this new beginning on this street because I feel like Stockton needs more good stuff going on, and I feel like it's going to bring more good people."

Watch more Miracle Mile news from ABC10: Stockton's iconic Miracle Mile retail district gets $20M improvements

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