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Armory proposal has new life

An advisory panel from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), one of the premiere real estate organizations in the country, will tour the Armory on May 11 to see if they think it's feasible to turn it into a high tech arts and music center.

An advisory panel from the Urban Land Institute (ULI), one of the premiere real estate organizations in the country, will tour the Armory on May 11 to see if they think it's feasible to turn it into a high tech arts and music center.
It's an incredible coup for the citizen group that has been working to turn the Armory into an arts and music center, advocates say.
The ULI, with 16,000 members from around the nation and the world, is a nonprofit organization recognized all over the country for its commitment to good urban planning and preserving what's great about American architecture, said Susan Phillips, one of the members of the group that wants to save the Armory from demolition.
"They were brought together when real estate development was causing all this urban sprawl," she said. "A lot of their original efforts were downtown preservation."
The ULI meets twice a year, and as part of the agenda at each convention, a panel of volunteer experts look at proposed projects in the host city.
Tony LoPinto, Phillips' husband and a member of ULI, said when the organization decided to hold its spring convention in Minneapolis, he was asked to advise them on what projects to consider for review.
The Armory was a natural, he said.
"It's exactly what ULI stands for," he said." It's exactly what they like to do."
Mary Beth Corrigan, managing director of the advisory services program for the ULI, which is based in Washington, D.C., said the project so intrigued them that they agreed to travel up to Duluth to take a look at the building, and the city. The panel, to be chaired by LoPinto's partner, William Kistler, who is based in London, England, will include financiers, developers and experts who been have involved with operating cultural arts centers, Corrigan said.
The experts won't produce a detailed master plan for the group. "It's sort of a reality check, is the purpose of it," she said.
To Phillips and other members of the Armory preservation group, the reality check couldn't come at a better time.
The group has just received notification that the Armory has been recommended for National Registry Status by the Minnesota State Historical Society, which makes the project eligible for $1.2 million in tax credits.
Its business plan is completed and includes a variety of proposals to create a music and arts center focused on how technology is creatively changing the arts -- films, music and the visual and performing arts.
The business plan also includes revenue centers and a restaurant to help support the center financially, as well as state-of-the-art space for traveling exhibits and two performance stages, a movie production sound stage and the ballroom theater and screening room on the third floor.
One aspect of the plan is the high tech connection, including a possible relationship between the Duluth's Technology Village and the music and arts center, LoPinto said. The Armory could become a digital arts incubator and the Soft Center a digital business incubator, together attracting and holding residents.
"We're trying to get someone from Sony on the ULI panel, people who are familiar with the connection between arts and technology." he said.
Certainly the concept has intrigued local leaders. The city has offered to pay the $5,000 it will take to bring the panel of experts up here.
"It sounds to me like a group of some pretty high-powered people who are experts that do the kinds of things this group of people want to do with the Armory," said Mayor Gary Doty. "I think it's a great opportunity. The difficulty, of course, is that it is a very expensive project. It can't be a city project. But we're paying to bring this group to Duluth to assist the citizens' group to preserve the property."
The panel will tour the downtown, including the Tech Village, before heading out to the Armory.
Rob Link, of A&L Development, which developed the Tech Village, met with the Armory group this week.
"By the end of the meeting, I found myself getting fairly excited," he said. "I think the community benefits would be wonderful if it could all be pulled together. But I tend to work projects from the back end first -- will the project work economically? I think that there's some gaps and unanswered questions that someone in the banking community might ask. But I thought it looked like a pretty exciting project. They've done their homework in a lot of areas."
David Ross, executive director of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, who had his first tour of the building on Thursday, is also cautiously optimistic.
"I found the building to be in better condition than I anticipated," he said. "The leadership of the effort is certainly visionary, and they're confident they can secure the kind of funding necessary to lead to the renovation, so there is reason for optimism. This is where I think that traditional economic developers can partner with historical preservation advocates ... to make Duluth an attractive place for people to live and invest in."
Phillips said that the ULI panel will be asked five questions -- one of which asks for suggestions for how to finance the project as well as how to keep the new center in the black.
What's extraordinary about this project so far is how it is bringing together civic, governmental and business organizations, she said. "It's pretty incredible," she said. "But to do this, you need everybody. You need preservationists, you need the city. It's pretty exciting."
The panel will travel to Duluth by RV on Friday morning, tour the city and the Armory and then return to Minneapolis. Hopefully, the report will be published in the ULI magazine, Phillips said.
The relationship between the Armory restoration group and the panel probably will not end there.
"They'll answer our phone calls," she said, a boon indeed.
Joan Farnam is arts and entertainment editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach her at joan.farnam@duluth.com or 723-1207.

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