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State officials tour Armory

More than 100 arrived to show support for the UMCA , Paul Dove telling legislators, “We collectively dare to dream.” (Jean Ruzickla / Enterprise)1 / 2
Former mayor Nancy Carroll speaks with Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL, St. Paul, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee.(Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)2 / 2


Members of the Legislature’s House Capital Investment Committee arrived at Armory Square Wednesday morning, greeted by an energetic assemblage of supporters for the Upper Mississippi Center for the Arts.

“I believe the community is ready to take this to a new level,” Tom Miller of the Park Rapids Community Development Corporation said in introducing the initiative.

Funding is being sought for the estimated $4.4 million project, 50 percent to be realized locally.

The mission is to provide performance space for theater, dance, music and spoken word groups in north-central Minnesota, legislators learned via a brochure generated for the event. Partnerships would form with area schools.

The UMCA is forecast to serve as an “anchor for development in the region to stimulate broader economic revitalization,” including employment opportunities, housing and boosting the business climate.

The building, constructed in 1922, served the National Guard for 70 years, used as a training and maintenance facility. When the unit was upgraded to a mechanized infantry regiment in 1941, an addition was constructed to house vehicles. At 24,000 square feet, it’s a prominent feature of downtown.

The armory was vacated in 1992 and remained virtually in limbo until Alan Zemek of Echopoint Development undertook an “adaptive redevelopment plan” in 2009.

The building is under public and private ownership due to the list of issues to be dealt with, Zemek said. But he indicated the ultimate goal is that it will be publicly owned and managed by an independent board.

Nine agencies have partnered on the project to date, he told the state officials.

The goal is to restore the building as a “center for community activities, education, arts and cultural expression.”

“The council has supported this since its inception,” Paul Utke told the legislators of the building’s transformation for community use. “Studies show the tremendous impact this would have on the community.”

“The vitality of our county depends on the entrepreneurial efforts of many independent, creative and determined people,” county commissioner Kathy Grell said.

The empty building, “a blight to our downtown area,” would become an “outlet” for “creative, talented artisans,” Grell said.

A study conducted by RDG Planning and Design estimates an economic impact of $3.1 million into the region every year, Grell said.

“So it is in the public interest for the state to partner with a Greater Minnesota region to help strengthen the region’s economy by putting legs on a project that has been greatly vetted, is wildly supported by local businesses, Chamber of Commerce, the resort community and local governments. I would say that it is exactly the return on investment the state is looking for,” Grell said.

“We collectively dare to dream,” said Paul Dove, artistic director of Northern Light Opera and chair of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Arts Council.

Dove reviewed PRLAAC’s eight-year history, noting several projects have evolved since its inception, including Art Leap, Red Bridge Film Festival, Arts Downtown and others.

The UMCA can become an “anchor for arts and education events,” he said, forecasting the building will become a venue for traveling art shows, music, theater and dance performances.

The Nemeth Art Center’s Old Masters collection, currently exhibited in the original courthouse, might also find a home in the center. NAC board member Aaron Spangler pointed out temperature fluctuations in the 100-year-old building imperils the artwork created in the 16th and 17th Century. And the building is not handicap accessible, limiting the audience.

“I’m confident this could be a leading arts venue for the region,” Spangler said.

The UMCA will be a center of gravity for the artisan community,” Zemek said, but it will also be geared to stimulate economic activity, such as a site for conferences and conventions.

Seating could be reconfigured for small events, such as piano recitals, or removed for trade shows.

“We’re on the cusp,” Zemek told the legislators Wednesday. “We’re ready to go when we find the funding.”