EDGEWATER — Rosario Rosi's dream to convert a vacant building on Ridge Avenue into his personal gallery and workshop nearly became a reality.
But then he ran out of money.
Since 2007, Rosi had spent about $2.2 million to restore the crumbling building into a community attraction and event venue, as well as a gallery and workshop for his sculptures, he said.
Yet he didn't realize just how much work it needed.
"At that point it was a big sinkhole of money," he said. "When you fall in love with something, you ignore the blemishes until the next morning — and you realize what you got yourself into," he said standing inside 5757 N. Ridge Ave., a former Charlie Chaplin theater and more recently an auto repair shop.
"It was just a wreck. It was really awful."
Then the market collapsed in 2008, and the money dried up.
"One night we had $500,000 — the next day we had nothing," he said. So he started selling his property and other investments to keep the dream alive.
He replaced the failing roof, reinforced the unstable brick facade facing Ridge Avenue, installed ambient heating and concrete floors, began construction of a glass staircase and rehabbed a rickety, car-sized elevator formerly used by the auto mechanics.
Then the banks came looking for their money.
And now the building's on the market with an asking price of $1.5 million.
"Back in 2007 the banks were just tripping over themselves to give you money," he said. But since the real estate market upheaval, no investors will take the risk to help him complete what he says is only another $200,000 worth of renovations.
On the first floor, he dreamed of a water feature along a wall, with 30-foot-tall windows facing the street. The staircase would wind up to the second floor, a venue space, gallery and lounge area with a bar. The bottom floor he'd use as his personal workshop.
He dreamed, too, of the building being an anchor of a new arts district on Ridge Avenue, alongside the soon-to-be-sold Ridge Avenue Firehouse.
"The community loves this building," Rosario said.
Since he put it on the market, everyone who looked at the building loved it, but no one had been willing to offer enough money, he said.
A wealthy couple with grand aspirations for a new home brought out an architect to see how much it would cost to finish the building, he said.
Then they made a low bid anonymously through a broker, so Rosario turned it down and blacklisted the couple.
"People know there's distress, so you get bottom-feeders," he said of the low-ball offers. "They're just waiting for you to collapse."
In the years Rosario worked on the building, he spared little expense.
He said the new ceiling had been coated with paint that sells for $161 a gallon. Custom-made steel trusses replaced rotting wooden ones. Steel beams were implanted into the facade, too.
"It's built like a fortress," he said.
Rosario poured not only his sweat, but blood too, into the building. Rosario said he slipped while climbing down a ladder in the elevator shaft, and landed on construction equipment, impaling his thigh, compacting a vertebrae in his lower back and crushing several ribs.
Hard work aside, he said, the banks are getting antsy.
"We're almost out of time."