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Armory readying phase 2 of project

Summerhill on Second was the Armory's first tenant. Owner Eileen Reish said it was a good business decision. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Big plans are on the horizon for the arts community of Park Rapids.

The Park Rapids City Council approved working with Northern Light Opera Company to submit a joint application to the National Endowment for the Arts for a grant. Through NEA's Our Town, the organization "will provide a limited number of grants, ranging from $25,000 to $150,000, for creative place making projects that contribute toward the livability of communities and help transform them into lively, beautiful and sustainable places with the arts at their core," according to the grant description.

"This came to our attention through Region 2 Arts Council in Bemidji," said local developer Alan Zemek, who is working on redevelopment of the Armory into an arts and cultural center.

Zemek said the grant is a perfect fit because Park Rapids already has a functioning arts council in place (Park Rapids Lakes Area Arts Council) and the city developed an arts and culture commission about one year ago.

"It's kind of like a Capital Improvement Plan for your arts community," Zemek said of the grant. "It could be used for what they call cultural mapping, artistic assets in the community, public parks, design and engineering studies for performance spaces, art galleries."

The NEA defines these efforts as creative placemaking: "In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired."

The grant requires matching funds - in-kind or cash - and Zemek said he isn't asking the city for any financial commitment. He envisions private donors stepping forward.

However, he noted that if the city will be doing engineering studies for infrastructure work that could incorporate an arts impact, that cost could be applied to the match.

Paul Dove, representing Northern Light Opera Company, said this grant is a wonderful chance to work into a relationship with NEA.

At this time, NLOC can only work on one production a year because it uses the Park Rapids Area High School auditorium, which is booked during the school year. NLOC has had performances during the summer.

"The Northern Light Opera Company is very interested in the possibility of using some space at the Armory as part of the restoration," Dove said. "We'd like to see about getting some financial aid to get a good feasibility study done to make sure we can find architectural plans to see if it is possible or not."

Acoustical engineers have taken a look at the Armory facility and determined the large volume of space is key for acoustical success, he said.

"We weren't going to be interested in having performing arts there if it didn't work, but now we know it could work," Dove said.

He envisions a multi-purpose space and design needs to be done to determine how it can be done.

"This will enhance our community and be an economic force," Dove said. "If we can get people downtown that's half the battle."

He also thinks an arts and cultural center could have a regional appeal and could allow space for organizations such as the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra or Children's Theater.

Ideally, the space could also be used for trade shows or wedding receptions, Dove said.

Councilman Pat Mikesh wanted assurance that the city wouldn't be required to pay for anything.

Zemek assured him that the resolution he was asking the city to approve was only to support the arts and fulfill a requirement that a partnership be made with the city or another governmental body.

He also said he thinks the development of an arts and cultural center is important to the community. "I think this does have a very valuable, legitimate public purpose."

Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Wadena Pioneer Journal.
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