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Duluth Armory space may soon be up for rent

The 'for lease' signs aren't up yet. But work to bring life back to the old Duluth Armory has reached a milestone: A section is ready for tenants. Not walk-in ready, mind you. The water isn't running. The heating system is dismantled. The space o...

Duluth Armory
Gutted space on the Duluth Armory's third floor will be on the rental market soon. Similar spaces on the first and second floors facing London Road also will be available. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

The 'for lease' signs aren't up yet.

But work to bring life back to the old Duluth Armory has reached a milestone: A section is ready for tenants.

Not walk-in ready, mind you.

The water isn't running. The heating system is dismantled. The space on the eastern outskirts of downtown needs to be built out and finished. But 35,000 square feet in the armory's office block facing London Road will be on the market soon.

One of the three floors being offered up has been cleaned of asbestos and lead paint and the interior walls removed to give prospective tenants a sense of its spaciousness under the 17-foot-tall ceilings. That gutted third floor space, roughly 7,000 square feet, originally served as a ballroom for National Guard officers, with a stage at one end.

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The Armory Arts and Music Center, the nonprofit group that saved the facility from demolition, is finalizing an agreement with the AtWater Group to find tenants for the space.

"We are handling it," confirmed Brian Forcier, the firm's executive vice president, who called it an interesting assignment.

"Obviously, it's going to have to be one or two large-scale tenants to put in all the infrastructure," he said. "And in our marketplace, there's not enough. So a lot of our marketing efforts will focus outside the area to try to bring new life into the area."

While it could serve as office space, Forcier acknowledged a lot of office space is available in Duluth right now.

Instead, he'll look to educational or other institutions here and elsewhere as prospective tenants.

"There's a whole host of charter schools out there, or somebody outside the area would be a good fit," he said. "The setting suits something along those lines. Ideally, we'd like to see something musical. Or a theater-type of educational institution would be pretty neat in that site."

Lease rates would be $10 to $11 per square foot, plus pro-rated property taxes, utilities and building insurance, he said.

The armory, built in 1915, made National Register of Historic Places this year. That will work in their favor.

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"It means it qualifies for historic tax credits," Forcier said. "That'll help make it financially feasible."

The milestone move to find tenants comes after years of cleanup and repairs that have included replacing one-third of the roof and gutting the third floor. Similar abatement efforts will be necessary on the first and second floors before the spaces can be leased.

Much of the $250,000 Save America's Treasures grant the project received from the U.S. Department of Interior in 2004 has been spent, as well as the matching cash and in-kind services raised.

But $1 million from an anonymous donor this year, earmarked for construction costs, remains untapped. And there's cash to cover insurance, electric bills and other operating costs, says Mary Ostman, the armory group's secretary.

Getting a tenant is now a priority, says Susan Phillips of the armory group, which bought the facility from the city for $1 in 2003. The armory had been mostly vacant or used as a city garage for decades.

Phillips said the 21st-century model for nonprofit sustainability calls for leasing some space to pay for the rest. And that's what they're trying to do.

The 117,000-square-foot Armory was home to the National Guard's 125th Field Artillery, part of the 1st Division in Europe during World War II. Many big-name artists performed there over the years, and a young Bob Dylan was inspired when he saw Buddy Holly perform there in 1959, shortly before Holly's death in a plane crash.

The armory group would like to see the expansive drill hall area again used for performances and community events. They also want to establish a Music Resource Center there for teens to jam, record music and learn about the music industry. Other ideas have included student housing, lodging, a restaurant and a military museum.

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