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Development partnership spells new hope for Duluth Armory building

Sherman Associates has joined in an effort to rehabilitate the long-shuttered building.

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George Sherman, CEO of Sherman Associates, speaks at the podium during a press conference to announce the partnership between Sherman and the Armory Arts and Music Center at the Duluth Armory on Monday afternoon, Dec. 20, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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Developer George Sherman and representatives of the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center announced Monday they have joined forces to transform the long-idle Duluth Armory into a food hall, performance venue and history center at an anticipated cost of $25 million-$26 million.

But Sherman said the project will require about $7.5 million in state support to get off the ground.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the initiative has her full support and pledged to go to bat for the necessary funding in St. Paul.

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George Sherman, right, CEO of Sherman Associates, gets a hug from Duluth Mayor Emily Larson after a news conference to announce the partnership agreement between the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center and Sherman Associates on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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With Larson's backing, Sherman expressed confidence state funding will be forthcoming.

"It's a community-based project. It's creating jobs for the community. It's renovating a historic building. We think we have a great opportunity here, and our early conversations have been very positive," he said, noting however that state funding is a critical component for the project.

Reflecting on the protracted effort to save the building, which had, until recently been condemned and slated for demolition, Mark Poirier, executive director of the Armory Arts and Music Center, mused: "They say good things come to those who wait. And if that's true, this Armory project is going to be amazing, because we worked 20 years to get to this point."

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Mark Poirier, executive director of the Armory Arts and Music Center, speaks during a news conference to announce the partnership between Sherman Associates and the Armory Arts and Music Center at the Duluth Armory on Monday afternoon, Dec. 20, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

In the intervening years, Poirier said volunteers worked to get the armory listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. They also raised enough money to invest about $5 million in the facility, including $1.5 million to replace the failing floor of the old drill hall, which was near collapse.

Sherman said he walked through the armory about 18 years ago to evaluate the building's potential.

"I decided to pass at the time. A river ran through it. You literally could see it going right underneath this building," he said recalling the structure's failing floors. Sherman said it was his opinion at the time that the building could not be saved.

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A new floor has been poured inside the Duluth Armory, as seen Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Sherman credited the volunteers of the nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center for proving him wrong by "maintaining this treasure and making today a reality."

In the future, Sherman expects the armory to return to its former role as a community venue for arts and entertainment. Built in 1915, the armory has hosted the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Harry Truman. It was also the venue where a young Bobby Zimmerman — later to be known as Bob Dylan — saw Buddy Holly play days before the rock 'n' roll pioneer died in a plane crash.

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An artist's conception of what an event at the Duluth Armory might look like from the mezzanine level. Contributed / LHB

Sherman said the food hall he aims to establish at the Armory will provide aspiring restaurateurs a unique opportunity.

"What's phenomenal about the food court concept is it takes almost no money for a local business to get started. We provide the kitchen, the tables and the whole space," he said, describing an incubator-type setting.

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"We're going to have a beer hall that goes with that here. We'll have music, food and the opportunity to have a fun time," Sherman said.

Larson described what has been envisioned as "a very Duluth space."

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson speaks during a news conference to announce the partnership agreement between the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center and Sherman Associates to rehabilitate and develop the Duluth Armory on Monday afternoon, Dec. 20, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

"What we do here is: We work hard; we work with our hands; we tell stories, we share music; we cook for each other; we spend time together. That is the space that is being envisioned here. And it's a vision that I'm incredibly excited to support and get behind," she said.

City Councilor Roz Randorf, who represents Duluth's 3rd District, praised the efforts to restore the armory.

"I want to take a moment to really thank all the volunteers, when you think that in September of 2001, this building was slated to be demolished," Randorf said. She credited those volunteers for drawing attention to the danger of losing a local historic landmark.

Larson pointed to Sherman's successful role leading the effort to restore Duluth NorShor Theatre as evidence of his ability to tackle and complete big projects.

"I know George. We know his team. We've worked on very complicated projects in the past, and we're ready to do it again here," she said.

The Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center
The Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center announced a partnership agreement with Sherman Associates to rehabilitate and develop the historic Duluth Armory on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

In 2005, the Duluth division of the the Local Initiative Support Corp. became one of the first entities to get behind the effort to preserve the armory.

"This is the type of development where we come in early with funding," Pam Kramer, executive director of Local Initiative Support Corp., said. "We're patient, and we try to bring others to the table."

Kramer spoke to the many merits of the armory plan.

"If you like historic preservation, this is your project," she said. "If you like healthy food and building entrepreneurship and investing in neighborhoods, this is your development. If you are committed to the arts, this is your development."

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An artist's conception of what the food hall at the Duluth Armory might look like. Contributed / LHB

If the armory project can obtain $7.5 million in state aid, Sherman expressed confidence the project could be completed in about 30 months. That includes about 12 months for architectural drawings, bidding and fundraising, followed by about 18 month of construction.

"I think with the state bonding money, the rest of the funds will flow, we will get the rest of the dollars, because it's the linchpin," Sherman said.

If all goes according to plan, Sherman said the revamped armory could reopen to the public by June 2024.

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People look around the Duluth Armory before a press conference to announce the partnership agreement between the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center and Sherman Associates on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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