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Developer eyes long-neglected Duluth Armory

A Minneapolis-based real estate developer has a purchase agreement for the century-old Duluth Armory on London Road. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

A Minneapolis-based real estate developer is looking to revitalize one of Duluth's most storied yet longest-neglected landmarks: the century-old armory on London Road.

"Currently we have an executed purchase agreement, and we are in our due diligence phase, which ends in December," said Lori Boisclair, president of Boisclair Corp., a 41-year-old firm.

"It's all going well, so we hope to finalize this transaction. If so, that would be in January of 2016," she said.

The company envisions a mix of retail, arts and office space in the main building, with an apartment building to be constructed on the site of the neighboring annex building.

The Armory Arts and Music Center, a local group of people working to save the building on London Road between 13th and 14th avenues East, has explored previous projects with other developers who got cold feet. Mark Poirier, the center's project development consultant, said everyone is trying to keep their hopes in check — but there is reason for optimism.

"I've been down this road enough times that I'm not counting my chickens before they're hatched quite frankly, but we've never been this far in the process. We're very excited because we've never had a partner share our vision as much as Boisclair does," he said.

Request for proposals

The Armory Arts and Music Center joined forces with the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota last fall to send out a request for proposals for the property. The effort garnered responses from four would-be developers, but Poirier said Boisclair's proposal "really stood out."

"Their vision matched ours in so many ways," he said.

The AAMC began discussions with Boisclair shortly thereafter, and it hasn't looked back.

The firm isn't taking anything for granted with the project, however.

"We've had forensic work done by a lot of third-party specialists," Boisclair said.

To date, the roof and the drill floor have been inspected; an energy analysis was performed; and a structural consultant from Chicago was hired to examine the guts of the building.

Meanwhile, a market study continues.

The initial findings have been encouraging, Boisclair said.

"It's got great bones," she said. "The building is in surprisingly good shape."

Boisclair detailed tentative plans to renovate the main armory building, turning it into retail and office space interspersed with artistic offerings. The deal would include a long-term lease of space to the Armory Arts and Music Center.

"At this point we see ourselves as partners moving forward," Poirier said.

Boisclair said the armory also could be home to a dining establishment featuring a music venue.

The neighboring annex building has been deemed less historically significant, and preliminary plans call for it to be torn down, making way for a four-story apartment building with a level of underground parking tucked beneath it. Boisclair said the 48-unit building would provide a mix of market-rate and reduced-rate housing.

"Our vision for the building is panning out. So we're optimistic that we will get to the closing. It's perhaps a little premature to say that, but we love the site," she said.

The property features unobstructed lake views and sits across the street from Leif Erikson Park and the Rose Garden, offering direct access to Duluth's popular Lakewalk.

Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and construction services, noted that the site also is a short walk from a grocery store and other shopping, Alakef Coffee and Lakewalk Center.

"It's already an amenity-rich zone, but this is a project that could spur even more positive redevelopment in that area," he said.

Parking challenges

While underground parking would be provided for the apartment building that would be constructed where the annex now stands, addressing the parking needs for the main building will be more of a challenge.

"We've been working with the city on the idea of potentially vacating part of 13th Avenue East and putting up a two-story (parking) ramp. But it wouldn't be a total vacation, because Super One would still need to maintain ingress and egress," Boisclair said, referring to the nearby grocery store.

It's still a bit early to know exactly what the scope of the project would be, she said, observing: "We're still fine-tuning the numbers." Nevertheless, Boisclair said she anticipates the total project cost will land somewhere between $25 million and $35 million.

Boisclair is exploring a number of potential funding sources, including historic tax credits and tax-increment financing. Hamre said the project also is included in a grant application the city plans to submit seeking aid from a federal Disaster Resiliency Fund. He noted that the property suffered damage in Duluth's 2012 flood, when a culvert carrying water from Chester Creek became overburdened, flooding the armory's basement.

The city is seeking $2 million in federal support for the armory redevelopment project, touting the replacement housing it would provide. Hamre said the city already has removed 27 units of flood-damaged housing and probably will look for funding to take out another 10 to 25 homes if additional federal money is made available.

"This project is layered," Boisclair said. "It's going to have some subsidy layering and some debt layering in there, which always causes it to be a lengthier process, a more time-consuming process. But that's what we do."

A number of prospective tenants already have expressed strong interest in the evolving project, Boisclair said.

"We're trying our best," Boisclair said of the project. "We hope that we get full funding, that we win the city's support, and that we get the community's support. We are very excited about concluding our due diligence positively."

Preserving history

In addition to meeting the modern-day needs of Duluth, Boisclair said she would welcome the opportunity to restore a historic landmark.

"You walk in that building and you just get goosebumps from the history," she said. "It's just amazing, as is the structure itself. Any historic property should be preserved if possible, especially one with as much history as that armory has."

Plans call for a "Hall of Heroes," paying homage to the many military veterans who trained in and assembled at the armory over the years. Poirier said there also is a desire to create a "Legends Tribute" space, recognizing many of the famous speakers and performers who used the facility as a venue.

The armory was built in 1915, and in 1918 it was used as a triage center to treat victims of the deadly Spanish flu, as well as the devastating Cloquet fire that same year.

In 1959, the armory hosted a stop on the "Winter Dance Party" tour featuring Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, who all died three days later in an Iowa plane crash. A young Bobby Zimmerman, who would later assume Bob Dylan as his stage name, was in attendance that night and cited the experience as a formative moment when he accepted a Grammy Award in 1998.

Other notable figures who have appeared at the Duluth Armory include President Harry S Truman, Bob Hope, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Dale Carnegie, Patsy Cline, the Everly Brothers, Oral Roberts, Hank Williams Sr., Liberace and John Philip Sousa.

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