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Senators tour Armory Square

Sen. Leroy Stumpf (DFL-Plummmer) led the Senate Finance Committee in touring the Armory in Park Rapids. The project is up for possible inclusion in the 2014 bonding bill. He listens to Alan Zemek, right, who is the developer of the project. (Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

By Anna Erickson

Members of the Senate Capital Investment Committee stopped to visit the Armory in downtown Park Rapids as part of a three-day bonding tour this week.

The Park Rapids arts community welcomed the senators with open arms, with people attending from a variety of organizations that are interested in the future of the Armory.

The Senate Committee visit and tour is part of the legislative process for S.F. 117, a bill introduced in the State Senate on Jan. 24, 2013. The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee for action in the 2014 session, which opens on Feb. 25, 2014.

The intent of the bill is to appropriate state funds to be granted to the City of Park Rapids Economic Development Authority for the purpose of acquisition, renovation, redevelopment and operation of the former National Guard Armory building as the Upper Mississippi Center for the Arts. The Senate Finance Committee is in the due diligence process of visiting projects around the state to evaluate the merits and public benefit of proposed projects. It is a competitive process, as more projects are proposed than can be funded. (Other communities around Park Rapids such as Bemidji and Wadena, have been successful getting state funds granted to their community projects in the past).

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer) chairs the Capital Investment Committee and had good things to say about Park Rapids.

“I think this is the warmest reception we’ve gotten,” he said.

It seemed clear that the community was on board with the project and that’s good to see.

The committee will look at about 400 different proposals for possible inclusion in the bonding bill before it’s done, Stumpf said. Not all projects are looked at on site.

State legislators from the region will also be along to highlight projects in their districts. This was the third of six regional and metro tours of the entire state.

“The Committee has heard from more than 60 projects over the past two tours and at each stop we have been met by communities and organizations that are dedicated to and enthusiastic about their proposed projects. Meeting with each group is an important part of the bonding process,” Stumpf said. “This is the best way for Committee members to understand and evaluate each project fully in order to make well-informed funding decisions that will benefit the greatest number of Minnesotans.”

Two more sets of regional tours will happen in the next few weeks with the final tour wrapping up in the first week of December.

Members of the Legislature’s House Capital Investment Committee toured the Armory in September as well.

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 goals 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.

Park Rapids city councilman Rod Nordberg recalled many memories of the Armory, including dances and performances. (Anna Erickson

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.

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 director Meredith Lynn 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.

“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.

“We really are shovel ready,” Zemek added. “I know that’s a buzz word we’ve been hearing. We’re ready to go.”

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