My Pontiac Story: Karen Jorgensen of Pontiac's Little Art Theatre

Karen Jorgensen calls it "progress noise:" the loud percussive chunks of power tools clanging off the walls of an indoor space. It might not be the most pleasant sound to most, but to Jorgensen, it's music to her ears.

Jorgensen and her partner, both in life and in business, Robert Karazim, are in the midst of transforming 47 N. Saginaw in downtown Pontiac into Pontiac's Little Art Theatre, or The P.L.A.T. It's an impressive undertaking, and Jorgensen and Karazim aren't missing a beat.

The 149-year old building was most recently a law firm, but you wouldn't know it. The renovations are completely transforming the space into Pontiac's latest arts center, built for live theater, music performances, fashion shows, art openings, and whatever else the couple sees fit for the P.L.A.T. The Green Room, a small sitting and concession area, is located in the front of the building.

They've purchased furnishings that are period-appropriate for the Victorian-era building, including mohair chairs and colorful leaded glass doors. Those doors were purchased south of Cleveland. The 140-year old matching set will serve as the signature background for the P.L.A.T. stage, with a space built behind to backlight the colorful leaded glass.

From the custom-cast ornaments on the outside of the building to the wheelchair ramp leading to the stage, no detail has been ignored..

Jorgensen and Karazim bought their home, a live/work space a few storefronts down the block from the P.L.A.T., in 2012. They've since become enthusiastic Pontiac boosters and founded the Canvas Pontiac public art competition. Jorgensen takes pride in sweeping the street outside her door herself, and even organized a group of volunteers to drive around the city and tag every broken streetlight for replacement.

It's a seemingly unlikely development for Jorgensen, who is a medical case manager by day, and on, call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But that's what she likes about it.

"There are so many things that I didn't think were going to happen. But that's the great thing about life: You don't know. You just have to keep yourself open. Sometimes those skills you learn in life, you go, why did I do this? And then, all of a sudden, ten or fifteen years later, you go, thank goodness I had this experience and that experience and I met that person," says Jorgensen.

"And now it's all falling into place."

Metromode asked Jorgensen about her unlikely path and her place in Pontiac.

Q: What do you love most about Pontiac?

The people. The people are incredible. I feel like this is my big family. And I'm not leaving. They're stuck with me. It's funny, because I was born in Detroit and when people ask me where I'm from, I say Pontiac. And they're like, really? Yep, this is my home. This is it.

Q: Why did you move to Pontiac?

I moved to Pontiac because there was a great opportunity here. All kinds of potential. It's a great time to buy real estate because it's probably at the lowest it will ever be. In a short period of time, I've already seen the value of our property rise, and it's only going to continue because we have a lot of people that are finally seeing the benefit of being here. 
 
In the last six months, we've had four new restaurants open up. From here on, I think a year from now, we won't even recognize this city. Because nobody wants to be the first one to invest, it might seem a little scary. Why don't I go to Birmingham or Auburn Hills but why Pontiac? Why Pontiac? Well, let's see, we have M1 Concourse, Wesson Tennis, Links on the Lake, which is a beautiful golf course, and Ultimate Soccer. We have four incredible recreational venues here that you can't find any place else that are here in Pontiac.

Q: What's Pontiac's biggest challenge and how do you think it can be addressed?

When my parents came to this country, we were always taught the importance of appreciating that you are a guest. There are a lot of people that are of many generations that have lived in Pontiac. So, I think at first it was difficult for me not to feel a little bit on the outside. But I don't think that's an issue anymore, we all appreciate where we're coming from. 
 
The other issue, which is true of just about any city, is getting people to get together and be understanding that if we don't work as a team, we're not going to move forward. Much like the Democrat and Republican parties, we're all in the same sandbox. We all want the best for each other. But there are a lot of times where you have to say, it's not so much that I get the credit for what I do, but to know that what I've done has made an impact and other people have followed suit. You know what you're capable of doing, you know what you've accomplished.

Q: What are your hopes for the city?

That it will continue to explode like it's already beginning to do. I think the last five or six years, it seems like we planted the seed, fertilized it. We have a lot of people that have invested in downtown, new IT companies that have come in to play. We don't have a Dan Gilbert down here but we do have a lot of people that understand the importance of rolling up their sleeves, investing your time and energy, and seeing that you can make anything happen. 
 
My favorite saying of Henry Ford's was, "You think you can, or you think you can't. Either way, you're right." So when I wake up in the morning and say, you can do it, or, you can't do it, what do you choose to do? It's not maybe I can do it. It's, I know I can do it. I'm going to do it.

Q: What should people in metro Detroit know about Pontiac?

It is a city with a lot of pride. There are a lot of people that are really working towards making this a very world-class city. We came from a city that was tenth worst in the nation, and of recent, we don't even rank anywhere close to the 100th worst city in the nation, and in such a short period of time. 
 
A lot of that I attribute to the work of [Emergency Manager] Lou Schimmel, who helped tremendously in helping us re-establish our financial situation here. They were big changes, and nobody likes big changes, but the Oakland County Sherrif's department has been incredible. A phenomenal fire department like no other. And our EMS. We have really great services in this city. We got our lights turned on, we're getting our streets cleaned. All those elements you need to turn things around are here. At this point, nobody's looking back. We're going forward.

Find the P.L.A.T. on Facebook.

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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