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Home / New performance venue planned in development in former location of The Mill in Iowa City
IOWA CITY — A new performance venue that’s part of a “multipurpose development” is in the early design stages at a familiar downtown location.
Those who have walked down E. Burlington Street past The Mill in recent weeks have noticed the orange placards announcing the building’s demotion. The permit was issued Thursday, and demolition on the iconic venue is expected to begin in two weeks.
But while The Mill is set to be demolished, the intent is that some of its characteristics will help form a new “state-of-the-art performance venue,“ said Marc Moen, a local developer and owner of The Mill property.
“While we cannot preserve the old structure of The Mill, we will carry forward its values and build a venue that nurtures the local arts culture, acts as a community gathering space, and attracts up and coming national performers,” Moen, a partner in the Moen Group, said in a statement to The Gazette.
Moen added how the space, which is in early design stages, will be “artist, audience and venue-operator friendly.”
Moen said he has been in discussion with local arts, entertainment and design people to help shape the direction of the new venue. Among those involved in the discussions have been Andre Perry, director of arts, engagement and inclusion at the University of Iowa; John Schickedanz, interim executive director and marketing director of the Englert Theatre; and Andrew Sherburne, executive director and co-founder of FilmScene.
“We are now sharing publicly what we have been working on privately over the past year,” Moen said. “We are fully committed to including a purpose-built intimate performance venue as part of the new development on the Mill site.”
Schickedanz said there hasn’t been negotiations of what that relationship will look like yet, but that the Englert is in the background “as a supportive arts venue, giving our blessing knowing that adding additional arts opportunities in the heart of downtown is a real benefit to the community as a whole and the arts ecosystem here.”
‘Such a staple of Iowa City’
The Mill has been part of Iowa City for nearly 60 years. The beloved bar and restaurant first opened in 1962 as the Coffee Mill, a folk music venue and coffee shop. It moved to the 120 E. Burlington St. location in 1972.
The institution has hosted a variety of politicians, musicians, writers and various other artists. The Mill was a place for campaign stops, fundraisers, live music and shows, and a number of other events over the years.
It was slated to close in 2003 when then-owners Keith and Pam Dempster announced they were retiring. Dan Ouverson and Marty Christensen stepped in to buy the business at the eleventh hour. Christensen and Ouverson ran the Mill for 17 years before announcing in 2020 that it was time for them to step away.
Schickedanz said The Englert played a role in programming at The Mill, which was a “huge opportunity” to be able to bring a wider range of artists to the area. It was a chance to bring emerging artists and different art forms to the community, he added.
“When that shut down as a result of the pandemic, it was really sad, and we felt that from a programming standpoint pretty early on,” Schickedanz said.
Schickedanz said the relationship was a steppingstone for artists.
“We've had many artists over the years that started off at The Mill and have grown to the Englert stage and now have grown even outside of the range of what we could program at the Engert,” Schickedanz said.
The building has been vacant since it shut down in 2020, despite local efforts to save it.
Rich LeMay, a former employee of The Mill, said efforts to save the building fizzled out due to the lack of information. LeMay, who had worked at The Mill since 2012, was most recently the events manager. The Mill was also where LeMay started his theater company, Run of The Mill Theater Productions.
He was involved in the “Refounders of The Mill” group, which hoped to come up with a plan to purchase the business and create a worker-led co-op structure. Another group, “Save The Mill — A Living Landmark,” was focused on securing historic landmark status for the building.
“It's been such a staple of Iowa City and has affected so many people's lives,” LeMay said.
LeMay said it’s unfortunate The Mill can’t be reopened in the same space but thinks it is more than just the building. He said what made The Mill so special was the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that it was a safe and welcoming place for all.
“I think The Mill is the staff, The Mill is the ownership and how it connects to the community more than it is the location,” he said.
“I just felt so welcomed and connected to my co-workers, (and) many of them have turned out to be lifelong friends,” he added — mentioning that he met his girlfriend during karaoke at The Mill.
A ‘multipurpose development’
The Moen Group acquired the property in 2002 and “did everything we could to assure The Mill continue to operate,” Moen said. He said a commitment to The Mill owners was to “incorporate The Mill into a new building when the site was developed.”
The description for the razing the site is for a “complete building demolition,” according to online city records. The demolition contractor listed on the permit is Walford-based D.W. Zinser.
The building, which was built in 1922, had a number of structural issues. The property is currently valued at $1.16 million, according to the Iowa City assessor.
Kevin Monson of Neumann Monson Architects said demolition is expected to begin sometime in the next two weeks. A tentative development timeline following demolition is another year to complete the design and two years for construction, Monson said.
The development is currently in the concept phase, Monson said, adding how information is being gathered about the live entertainment venue, as well as other potential additions.
Monson said the other potential aspects of the development are still being figured out, but that it will provide amenities that will be an addition to the downtown.
“It will be a multipurpose building, so it will include other amenities, probably will include housing as well,” Monson said.
Schickedanz said “there’s a lot of eyes on the project,” and how it seems the community is interested in the progress of the project “both in a critical standpoint and a benefit standpoint.”
LeMay said will be great to have a performance space where The Mill was but expressed hesitation about trying to replace what once was.
“I hope they don't try too hard to replace too much of what The Mill was,” LeMay said. “I hope it tries to be its own thing, while still maintaining an important piece of a safe community performance space, which The Mill was.”
LeMay said he hopes Christensen and others are able to “revive” The Mill in the future in another location.
“I think it's too early to count The Mill out,” LeMay said. “ … My hope is that all of the people that claim to love The Mill for what it was, what it is, I hope they don't give up on supporting it when it does come back, wherever it does.”
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