Music venue or arts and cultural center? An inside look at what's next for the Armory.
Two competing proposals for the downtown Armory building will likely make their way to the Rochester City Council later this month.
On one end, there is the arts and cultural proposal, which has picked up additional support since being rejected by the council in September. Revised plans call for the group behind the proposal, Rochester Arts and Cultural Initiative, to partner and share resources with more established civic organizations.
Then there is a new proposal that has emerged from the private market. A local entrepreneur is working with Twin Cities' investors to put together a plan to re-purpose the building into a multi-use entertainment venue.
The two parties have met with city officials, as well as each other. While both generally support the idea of a public-private partnership, they say it is unlikely there will be room for the two groups to work together.
In rejecting ACI's proposal last fall, the council agreed to appraise the Armory and begin marketing it for sale. It also voted to attach historic preservation requirements to the building, ensuring a new owner would not simply bulldoze the historic structure, and to give ACI the first shot at buying the property.
That appraisal amount, as well as an updated ACI proposal, will be presented to the council at a meeting this month, according to Aaron Reeves, assistant city administrator. An exact date has not been set. Staff will also provide "an update that there have been inquiries from private parties in the building."
It is unclear whether a third group, the Art and Science Academy, still has any interest in the site. The nonprofit had submitted a proposal to use the building for a K-8 charter school. However, the application was not considered because it came in after the initial RFP deadline. A phone call Tuesday was not returned.
We do know that city administration has been working behind the scenes to assist ACI with its proposal. The city-owned building has sat empty since the fall when the senior center moved into its new 125 Live facility.
City Administrator Stevan Kvenvold, who is entering the last leg of his decades-long career in public service, has said he would like see the building continue to "serve as a community resource." Mayor Ardell Brede, initially reluctant to back ACI's proposal, has also come around to support the group's vision.
ACI's proposal gains momentum
Questions about the business plan and management structure plagued ACI's first presentation to the city. But rather than fold up, they went back to the drawing table. At the request of the city, they began working closely with two entities that already receive city funding: the Rochester Art Center and Civic Theatre.
"We decided that together we will be a lot stronger," said Megan Johnston, executive director of the art center.
The organizations reviewed the initial proposal and added an extra layer of detail to the financial end. While the original mission — to create a community center for arts and cultural activities — remains intact, arts leaders are now recommending a more formal collaboration between the three groups.
"City-owned buildings need to work together to make them more efficient," said Johnston, noting the organizations could collaborate on fundraising and share resources. "We're talking about growing together in a sustainable way."
In addition to picking up new partners, representatives from ACI say there has also been new interest from smaller groups that need space. Their goal is to create a multi-generational facility that provides space for classes, workshops, meetings, gallery showings and cultural events.
"We want to stress the fact that it's not just for artists; it's not just for the cultural groups; it's not just a community center," said Debi Neville, chair of ACI. "It's 27,000 square feet on three floors. It's a big building."
With plans moving forward for the Chateau Theatre, concerns have been raised regarding whether the city can sustain four public arts and cultural centers. However, both Johnston and Neville insist the buildings can complement each other and there will not be a duplicate of services.
"Creatives need space. It doesn't matter if you're a creative from IBM or an engineer and you need a think tank space, or if you're a writer and you need a little closet space," said Johnston. "That's what the Armory could provide that the art center can't."
Possible music venue
While ACI's effort has been the subject of much public discussion, another intriguing proposal has been moving forward under the radar.
Local entrepreneur and community advocate Sunny Prabhakar is working with a group of investors from the Twin Cities on a plan to turn the Armory into a privately-managed, multi-use entertainment venue.
"Our proposal could bring arts and live art to the city in a way that we haven't seen before," Prabhakar said in a recent interview with Med City Beat.
Prabhakar declined to say who he was working with (until a formal presentation is prepared), but said the firm already operates venues in the Twin Cities metro and has experience in adapting historic buildings for reuse.
"Having the historic preservation mindset to really expose the building and to bring it back to its old glory — and also having a modern feeling within it — would be very cool," said Prabhakar.
Whether or not the firm would want to lease the building or buy it outright depends on the appraisal price from the city. However, they are prepared to invest "significant capital" into the building, said Prabhakar.
Under the plan, the venue would hold between 500-600 people at a time — potentially attracting more big-name performers to Rochester.
"Instead of us getting skipped over for concerts, we would be a date on the tour calendar," added Prabhakar, who is best known locally for his role as president of The Commission, a young professionals group in Rochester.
In addition to live music performances, the building would be used for weddings and other special events. The firm involved in the proposal would manage the venue using its own in-house booking and marketing services.
Having spoken with representatives from both the ACI and the city, Prabhakar acknowledged the demand for affordable event space downtown. But if his concept works out, he said many of the same groups involved with ACI could have the opportunity to utilize the building on non-peak nights.
"It's not about who manages it; it's about having access to the space," said Prabhakar. "Either way, the city is going to get some good value."
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(Cover photo: Med City Beat)