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Historic Duluth Armory expected to get a $25M makeover

20December 2021

DULUTH — The historic Duluth Armory served as a military training site through several wars and hosted the likes of Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash as the city’s first event center.

Decades later, a $25 million redevelopment project aims to turn the dilapidated building into a cultural and entrepreneurial venue that honors its past.

George Sherman of Minneapolis-based Sherman Associates and the nonprofit Armory Arts and Music Center announced a partnership for the project Monday.

“Our vision is to take this historic building that northern Minnesota holds so dear and reimagine it for the future,” said Mark Poirier, executive director of the Armory Arts and Music Center, an organization that’s raised nearly $5 million for restoration after purchasing the armory for $1 in 2003.

A demolition target for the city since 2000, the East Hillside building at 1305 London Road was constructed in 1915 and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. In its prime, the Minnesota National Guard and Naval Reserve training site also hosted concerts, car shows, dances and even refugees during the 1918 wildfires that ravaged northern Minnesota.

The Armory Arts and Music Center will ask the state for $7.5 million from the general fund for design and construction costs, and state and federal tax credits and grants will make up another chunk of the expected total. That $7.5 million is a key driver of the project, Sherman said. A similar amount was awarded by the state for the developer’s $31 million redevelopment of Duluth’s historic NorShor Theatre, completed in 2017.

Plans for the 100,000-plus square foot multi-level building include a food hall and brew pub, a large-scale community kitchen, space for local small businesses and artists, a restored stage and event space, a military “hall of heroes” and Bob Dylan exhibit and an after school music education program. (Dylan was in the audience of the armory’s 1959 Buddy Holly concert that took place in Duluth three days before Holly died in an Iowa plane crash.)

The plans could “activate a whole new generation of makers and doers and connectors,” said Mayor Emily Larson. “This is a very Duluth space. 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 being envisioned here.”

Years ago, Sherman said, he thought the building was too damaged to be saved. He credited the arts and music center and other volunteers for their preservation efforts.

“Through their efforts we have a phenomenal vision laid out,” he said, and it’s possible now because the “right concepts have been put together.”

Local chefs can thrive with small-scale operations, something the pandemic has shown, he said, and the proposed model will require little capital from such entrepreneurs.

“If you can introduce entertainment, music and food together in a setting that is affordable to operate for the businesses, they are successful,” Sherman said.

Sherman Associates also counts Duluth’s Sheraton Hotel and several apartment complexes among its projects within the city. Sherman said he expects a year of fundraising, design work and bidding, then 18 months of construction with an estimated June 2024 opening.

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