Robert “Jake” Jacob had a vision in 2013 when the Columbia River Maritime Museum put its storage space at the Astoria Armory up for sale.
“Creating a ‘Friends of the Armory’ is my goal, so that we can preserve this amazing community asset for multiple uses and events — some of which would be economic drivers for us here,” the developer, who died this year, wrote in a letter to The Daily Astorian enticing the public to tour and take interest in the building.
After nearly five years of excising the Armory’s buried environmental demons with the support of financial lender Craft3, Friends of the Astoria Armory last week took possession of the building, beginning a new chapter of its renovation into a modern performance venue.
Craft3 provided the Friends a $550,000 loan, $338,000 of it to purchase the building. The rest will go into adding another emergency exit, which will increase the venue’s capacity from 750 to 1,500.
The Friends will install more Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible bathrooms, refurbish the large windows under the vaulted lamella roof and improve the building’s sound system and acoustics. The city of Astoria guaranteed $90,000 of the loan to assist with window restoration.
“What we’ve been doing so far has been by hook and by crook, by grant and donation,” said Mike Davies, president of the Friends’ board.
Craft3, a nonprofit lender specializing in high-risk rural projects with a big potential community impact, purchased the building in 2014 from the museum to help the Friends form and focus on operating the venue. The hope was that the Friends would take over in about a year, said Craft3’s CEO, Adam Zimmerman.
A small army of volunteers with the Friends — whose only employee has been Community Director Robyn Koustik — refurbished the venue, remodeled the lobby, ran the concession stand and kept the building staffed during events. They developed a steady stream of events, such as their semiweekly skate nights, amateur wrestling, birthday parties and other private rentals.
Koustik also organizes several anti-bullying, youth volunteering and other community service programs in the space, along with the Just Ask program that feeds about 60 young people each Friday and Saturday.
But the group had been waiting for the sale to go through before starting major renovations and a fundraising campaign to modernize the Armory.
“Having the sound taken care of is going to significantly change the course of the Armory, where we’re going to be able to offer more programming,” Koustik said.
The sale and improvement loan was ready to go through in 2016, Zimmerman said. But the partnership began discovering unsavory vestiges of the 76-year-old building’s past, including buried heating oil tanks, asbestos on a boiler and lead contamination from an underground firing range for the Oregon Army National Guard.
“We didn’t want to turn over a building to them that had various and sundry issues,” Zimmerman said.
Just when it seemed everything was cleaned up, a storm rolled in last year and tore off part of the building’s roof. Volunteers walked in on an indoor waterfall cascading down onto the vintage gym floor and through the ceiling of the lobby.
Things at the Armory have since settled down, with a newly remodeled lobby, a repaired floor and a host of events and private parties.
“We still have 1,000 projects, but hopefully no more surprises,” Davies said.
With the building’s problems laid to rest, Craft3 last week executed the loan to the Friends using money received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development program meant for higher-risk, higher-reward community projects.
“We lend it into projects that have community or economic impact,” said Scott Huddleston, a loan officer with Craft3 who oversaw the transaction.
The Friends have seven years to pay back the loan.
Davies is confident in the Friends’ ability to raise donations and make money from events at the Armory. Dan Stein, a board member with the Friends, recently won Fort George Brewery’s Magnanimous Mug fundraising competition, gathering more than $29,000 and a $10,000 match from the brewery.
The Armory once hosted thousands of people seeing mainstream acts from Bob Hope to rock groups like Deep Purple, Buffalo Springfield and The Zombies. Then-Vice President Richard Nixon spoke at the Armory in the late 1950s.
A $45,000 pass-through grant from the Northwest Area Foundation will fund a marketing position for the Friends to focus on developing a fundraising plan and ensuring a steady rotation of concerts.
Craft3 took on a similar project in north Portland, taking over a former strip club and helping a community nonprofit over three years start developing it into a mixed-use community center and low-income housing complex.
There’s risk in taking on an old building with hidden ghosts like the Armory, and in making sure the community is ready to take ownership. “We use this building as an example of a community’s vision, and how we can help,” Zimmerman said.