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Abandoned Armory building in Duluth potentially set to get a facelift

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Photo courtesy of Susan Phillips, executive director of The Armory Arts & Entertainment Center.

DCN Reporter

Across the street from the Rose Garden on London Road stands an old, decrepit four-story building. Once an entertainment hot spot in the community, the Armory building now sits abandoned in the Central Hillside.

But one group of people is working to make the Armory a landmark in Duluth as it was 50 years ago. The Armory Arts & Music Center (AAMC) is a non-profit group that owns the Armory and hopes to find someone willing to start redeveloping the building.

In a request for proposals to prospective developers written by the AAMC, there are plans for a hotel, restaurant, concert hall, and retail stores. The AAMC also hopes to keep an educational and historical aspect of the building.

“We want to set up music education and other educational programs,? said Carolyn Sundquist, an AAMC board member.

The Armory is a fitting place for musical and cultural education because of its rich music history. On a January night in 1959, the Duluth Armory building hosted one of the most talked about concerts in the city’s history. Buddy Holly, an American song writer and 50s rocker played in front of a packed house in the Armory’s drill hall. Somewhere in the audience was a young Bob Dylan. According to a March 17, 2002, article in the Duluth News Tribune by Susan Phillips, executive director of the AAMC, Dylan later spoke of the impact of that concert on his life and musical career.

According to the AAMC’s request for proposals, other stars such as Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington and the Harlem Globetrotters have all performed at the Armory.

The AAMC hopes a renovated Armory building would draw new headliners to the community as it once did.
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Artist rendering of the proposed renovation of Duluth's Armory building on London Road. Photo courtesy of Susan Phillips of The Armory Arts & Entertainment Center.

The potential for the building is what the AAMC has pitched to developers, yet it has been a long and hard process to find someone willing to invest in such a big project.

“We’ve had a string of developers take a hard look at it,? said Mark Poirier, an architect who is involved in the project. “You have to have everyone lined up and ready to shake hands. A lot of trust is involved.?

One of the reasons that developers have been reluctant to take on the renovation is the cost of investment. In the AAMC’s request for proposals, the estimated cost for renovation is about $18 million.

“It takes the right developer with the right vision to make sure that they can turn a profit,? said Sundquist.

Ed Briesemeister was a developing consultant for the AAMC a few months back. He points to another problem that stands in the way of a new Armory.

“One major hurdle (is) the Duluth economy,? said Briesemeister. “The Duluth economy is sluggish enough that developers are reluctant to dive into it.?

Even with these challenges ahead, the AAMC might have found a taker. According to Poirier, Mike Kunz of Icon Architects in Grand Forks, ND and his business partner, Tom Arnodt have given the AAMC a development agreement.

“The next step in the process is finalizing the funding sources,? said Poirier. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of money.?

But it’s one step closer to a revitalized Armory.