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Our View: New life for historic Duluth Armory is 'coming together'

From the editorial: "The next major milestone for the Armory’s rebirth is expected this session of the Minnesota Legislature via a $7.5 million allocation in the bonding bill."

Concept for Armory exterior
The exterior of a restored Duluth Armory, as seen in an image created by Duluth firm LHB and provided by the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center.

After decades of uncertainty about the future of the historic, long-shuttered Duluth Armory — at one time the entertainment and military center of our city and region — a long-dreamed-of restoration and reuse leaped toward reality in December. That was when celebrated Twin Cities developer George Sherman announced he had joined the project, bringing his historic-preservation and community-development expertise and successes, including the restoration of the NorShor Theater and construction of the Sheraton Hotel, both in downtown Duluth.

The next major milestone for the Armory’s rebirth is expected this session of the Minnesota Legislature via a $7.5 million allocation in the bonding bill that is seen as key to unlocking other needed funding sources. An estimated $25 million is ultimately to be invested in the 107-year-old landmark and community treasure.

Good news on getting the allocation into the bonding bill: It’s “coming together” with “strong (legislative) leadership” and “strong bipartisan sponsorship,” according to Nelson French, a board member for the Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center, the Armory’s nonprofit owner for more than 20 years.

“We are well positioned,” French said in an interview this week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “With the $9 billion surplus the state has, there is opportunity to do projects of historic nature like this. It’s an important investment to bring a part of our rich past in Duluth into the future.”

The Armory Arts and Music Center already has raised and invested $4.5 million to $5 million into the building and has partnered wherever it could for pro bono work to make its dollars go further. Pigeons and pigeon carcasses were removed, the roof was redone, brickwork was tuckpointed, the drill hall floor in front of the historic stage where Bob Dylan famously attended a Buddy Holly concert was rebuilt, and more. The building is solid again and no longer looks ready to fall down like it once did. Its one-time condemnation and demolition order from the city has been lifted.

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The legislation in St. Paul is part of an expected 12 months of financing work. Other sources for funding include state and federal historic tax credits, federal new market tax credits, city tax increment financing (TIF), specific grants for things like removing hazardous materials, and private donations. Also, the arts and music center group hired a lobbyist to seek federal funds and has raised an additional $3.5 million to $4 million.

“All of the pieces … are coming together, and a pivotal point will be in late May when the Legislature passes it and the governor signs the package,” French said. “Then, boom, the other things will start falling into place.”

Once its reconstruction is complete, the Armory promises to be an impressive point of pride for Duluthians. The place is being reimagined for residents more than for tourists.

Its central features are to include a food hall with eight to 10 budding restaurateurs getting their start, a community kitchen where food-truck operators and others can cook and do prep work, and a microbrewery with an outdoor deck. Food halls have proven popular in Minneapolis, Denver, and elsewhere. Sherman has been involved in successfully launching at least two.

The reopened Armory is also to have spaces celebrating its past.

The DECC of its day for six decades, the Armory and its wide stage hosted entertainment giants like Bob Hope, Liberace, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, and John Philip Sousa. All of those are in addition to that now-famous Buddy Holly-headlined Winter Dance Party of 1959. Following additional fundraising, a museum-like space is planned beneath the historic stage to interpret and preserve it all.

A “hall of heroes” is planned on the third floor with kiosks and interactive displays telling the stories of generations of Duluthians who trained at the Armory before going to war or military service. The largest and best known was the National Guard’s 125th Field Artillery.

The Armory also sheltered survivors of the 1918 wildfire that burned through Cloquet and toward Lake Superior. And it was where more than 1,500 gathered for the funeral of Albert Woolson of Duluth, the last surviving member of the Civil War Union Army.

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Elsewhere in the hulking behemoth of a building, plans and ideas include pickleball courts, pool tables, indoor golf, art studios, music practice rooms, space for an after-school music program that’s already operating, and a roof deck with views of the big lake. Planners have even identified space for ample parking, they said.

After many long years as an empty eyesore — with weeds outside so tall they tickled the boarded-up first-floor windows and with a chain-link fence around the building as unsightly as a prison-yard enclosure — it may be hard to believe the Armory really can be saved this time, that its reuse really is possible.

But it is. “We’re all ready to go. … We have a very awesome project,” Armory Arts and Music Center Executive Director Mark Poirier said to the Opinion page. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve lost a sense of community, you know, with COVID-19 and the things associated with George Floyd. The Armory project is an opportunity to kind of bring the community back together, to be that gathering place. … We want to be that family room for Duluth.”

But first the Legislature has to do its job. Leading the way are House authors Jennifer Schultz and Liz Olson of Duluth, Rob Ecklund of International Falls, Dean Urdahl of Grove City, Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, Greg Davids of Preston, Mike Sundin of Esko, Dave Lislegard of Aurora, and Julie Sandstede of Hibbing. Authors of the Senate bill are Jason Rarick of Pine City, David Senjem of Rochester, and Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake.

This editorial originally contained a misspelling of Mark Poirier’s name. It was updated at 9:48 a.m. April 21 with the proper spelling. The News Tribune regrets the error.

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