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Exclusive first look: the Aragon Ballroom renovation

Aragon owner Ali Faraj and daughter Abbei

Councilman Brian Cummins, CDC rep. Adam Stalder and Ali Faraj on the main floor of the Aragon

The balcony of the Aragon

The Aragon in the 1980s

Aragon Ballroom today

Aragon Interior

Argon Interior

It started as a roller rink in 1905 before transforming into a dance palace and amusement garden. Then in 1937, the nearly 20,000-square-foot space at 3179 West 25th Street was dubbed the Aragon Ballroom. For more than 50 years, its maple floor accommodated countless rumbas, waltzes and cha chas.

Then in 1991, the foxes stopped trotting; the quicksteps sunk into quicksand; and the site's fascinating history came to an inauspicious end. Even worse, the beloved building lay fallow and eventually succumbed to disrepair and decay. In 2011, the City condemned it.

But this is Cleveland, where ever-afters have a fighting chance long after the carriage has turned into a rotted pumpkin and the glass slipper has shattered upon the stone step.

Enter local businessman Ali Faraj, who purchased the Aragon at auction just six months prior to its condemnation for the bargain price of $19,800 (he also shelled out more than $29,000 in back taxes).

"I worked as a salesman for almost 12 years and when I used to pass by here," says Faraj, referring to his ongoing wholesale business, "people would say they loved this place and would love to have it back."
 
Faraj's plans are to restore the space as closely as possible to its original splendor and then transform it into a conference and banquet center with a capacity of 800, although he foresees most events won't have more than 400 or 500 attendees.
 
"I want to bring it back to the way it was," vows Faraj. Ward 14 Councilman Brian Cummins, who has been instrumental in the project from the beginning, adds that the team has done extensive historical research on the structure.
 
Area residents have expressed concern over operations, having had negative experiences in the past with alcohol and firearm trouble at other businesses. Faraj and Cummins are quick to assert that the Aragon will be different, with no bar open to the public and a clientele similar to Faraj's Brookpark operation, the La Villa Conference and Banquet Center, which opened in 2011.
 
"What he does is akin to Landerhaven," says Cummins, evoking the upscale venue of Executive Caterers. He adds that the area's large Hispanic population is excited at the prospect of such a sizable event venue.
 
"A lot of the Hispanic people in this community come to our Brooklyn location to have events," notes Faraj's daughter Abbei. "We've had several quinceañeras."
 
Parking is another major concern for area residents. To assuage those worries, Faraj has worked with the Cleveland Municipal School District to use the parking lot of Lincoln West High School for events after 6 p.m., with a dedicated valet service shuttling guests. He and Cummins are also at work trying to secure additional parking on 25th for daytime events. More information regarding operations is available online.
 
An ambitious schedule has the venue open for business by the end of the year. Thus far, Faraj has completed a number of emergency repairs including window replacement, graffiti removal and roofing/rotted wood repairs. A to Z Builders is the contractor on the $1.5 million build-out. CARLETON Moore is the architect. The next municipal review of the project is a May 11 hearing at the Board of Zoning Appeals.
 
The ongoing rebirth of the Aragon has its naysayers, but they might reconsider when they step inside the space, which is still breathtaking despite its rough condition, or when they hear Faraj's story.
 
He immigrated to Cleveland from Palestine in 1976 and worked with his family for a few years before taking a chance on California. "I didn't have 50 cents in my pocket to buy a cup of coffee," says Faraj of his stint in the Golden State, so he came back to Cleveland. "I started with nothing." He found whatever work he could in resale and wholesale. "I worked my butt off 20 hours a day."
 
The father of six is now an established Northeast Ohio businessman. While his wholesale business remains core, Faraj is humble about his 58,000-square-foot Brookpark event venue, which hosts more than 150 events a year. "It's just a hobby," he says.
 
Understatements notwithstanding, the Aragon project also has larger implications for the surrounding Clark-Fulton neighborhood.
 
"It's the catalyst on West  25th," says Adam Stalder, economic development director for the Stockyard, Clark-Fulton and Brookleyn Centre Community Development Office. The Aragon, along with the tentative $9.5 million Lofts at Lion Mills project and ongoing expansions at Nestle and MetroHealth, all add up to a staggering economic impact.
 
"That's almost a billion dollars coming into this corridor."

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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