The Northwest Minnesota Foundation celebrated a milestone this spring as closing was finally accomplished on the long-simmering Armory Square project in Park Rapids.
Now heralded as the Armory Arts and Events Center, the historic building located in the heart of Park Rapids is poised to host an array of events as soon as COVIDrelated restrictions are lifted and it is once again deemed safe to do so.
The old armory building was built in 1922, added an annex in 1941, and then closed in 1992. Developer Alan Zemek spearheaded a project to redevelop the 24,000-square-foot facility into a mixed-use center that could host community, cultural, and arts events. The popular Vallarta’s Mexican Grill is now located in the annex, and the Northern Lights Opera Company has been the main tenant for the 8,000-square-foot auditorium, which is also now available for hosting a multitude of other events and activities, including conventions, conferences, banquets, and weddings.
“(Zemek) had a vision right from the beginning that this would become a community building,” said Paul Dove, a member of the Armory Arts and Event Center board who has been involved in the project since the beginning.
The Northwest Minnesota Foundation has played a role in financing various components of the project, approving nearly $400,000 in loans through its own funds and the Park Rapids Revolving Loan Fund.
The process for accomplishing the Armory Square project was not always straight-forward. Initially conceived as the Upper Mississippi Arts Center, it was planned to be a private development that would not involve the city. But the city ultimately did purchase the property from Zemek, save for the restaurant portion of the annex, with the costs funded by a state appropriation that was granted in 2014 but not executed until the remodel was complete. Once that work was finished, the city was able to execute the grant agreement with the state.
“The dream, the imagination of the developer was there… it was his imagination that made things happen,” Dove said.
The city leases the property to the Midwest Minnesota Community Development Corporation, which then subleases it to the Armory Arts and Event Center board.
The focal point of the center is the auditorium, which is where the Northern Lights Opera Company held its five most recent performance seasons, when the facility was still owned privately as a “proof of concept” that the space could be used and functional. The production brought in more than 2,200 spectators over its eight performances for its last show, The Drowsy Chaperone, in 2019.
“It was proof to the downtown business association, that while we were having productions, their stores were crowded especially the eating establishments,” Dove said. “They have found that there is an economic impact by having this building being used.”
The functionality of the complex, though, expands well beyond the large auditorium. There are smaller rooms located throughout the property, including a number of classroom-sized spaces that could host breakout rooms or featured speakers during an event like a trade show or rented out as conference rooms.
“The facility is only going to be successful as it becomes a multi-use building,” Dove said.