Art design

New performance venue planned in development at former The Mill location in Iowa City

Construction equipment sits next to The Mill in Iowa City on Thursday. A demolition permit was issued on Thursday, with demolition expected to take place within the next two weeks. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

A demolition notice sign is posted outside The Mill in Iowa City. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Trash and debris litter the interior of The Mill in Iowa City on Thursday. The venue was closed in 2020. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

April 1, 2014: Mark McGuire of Cleveland performs at The Factory in support of his 2014 Dead Oceans debut ‘Along the Way’ on the first day of the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City. The mill has been part of Iowa City for six decades, moving to its newest location in 1972. (Justin Torner/Freelance for The Gazette)

January 16, 2016: Costumed David Bowie fans take to the stage at The Mill during a tribute to the late artist. The evening included karaoke, raffles and a costume contest. All proceeds went to The Shelter House in Iowa City. The mill has been part of Iowa City for six decades, moving to its newest location in 1972. (Zak Neumann/Independent for The Gazette)

November 4, 2014: Johnson County Supervisor Rod Sullivan and County Supervisor candidates Mike Carberry and Janelle Rettig check their iPads for updates during election night at The Mill in Iowa City. The mill has been part of Iowa City for six decades, moving to its newest location in 1972. (The Gazette)

November 2, 2016: Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine makes an unannounced stop at The Mill in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A new performance hall part of a “mixed-use development” is in the early design stages in a familiar downtown location.

Those who have walked down E. Burlington Street past The Mill in recent weeks have noticed the orange signs announcing the building’s demotion. The permit was issued on Thursday and demolition of the iconic venue is expected to begin in two weeks.

But as The Mill is set to be demolished, the intention is that some of its features 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 continue its values ​​and build a place that nurtures local arts culture, acts as a community gathering space and attracts up-and-coming national artists,” said Moen, partner of the Moen Group, said in a statement to The Gazette.

Moen added that the space, which is in the early stages of design, will be “user-friendly for artists, audiences and venue operators.”

Moen said he had discussions with local arts, entertainment and design people to help shape the direction of the new venue. Among those involved in the discussions were Andre Perry, director of arts, engagement and inclusion at the University of Iowa; John Schickedanz, acting executive director and chief marketing officer of the Englert Theatre; and Andrew Sherburne, Executive Director and Co-Founder of FilmScene.

“We are now sharing publicly what we’ve 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 at the Mill site.”

Schickedanz said there have been no negotiations yet on what that relationship would look like, but Englert is in the background “as a place of support for the arts, giving our blessing knowing that the he addition of additional artistic opportunities to the downtown core is a real benefit to the community as a whole and to the artistic ecosystem here.

“Such an Iowa City staple”

The Mill has been part of Iowa City for nearly 60 years. The beloved bar and restaurant opened in 1962 as the Coffee Mill, a folk music venue and cafe. It moved to 120 E. Burlington St. in 1972.

The institution has hosted various politicians, musicians, writers and various other artists. The mill was a location for campaign stops, fundraisers, live music and performances, and many other events over the years.

It was due 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 company at the last minute. Christensen and Ouverson ran the factory for 17 years before announcing in 2020 that it was time for them to retire.

Schickedanz said The Englert had a role in programming 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 it stopped because of the pandemic, it was really sad, and we felt that pretty early from a programming perspective,” Schickedanz said.

Schickedanz said the relationship was a springboard for artists.

“We’ve had many artists over the years who started at The Mill and grew up to the Englert stage and have now grown even outside the range of what we could program at The Engert”, Schickedanz said.

The building has been vacant since its closure in 2020, despite local efforts to save it.

Rich LeMay, a former employee of The Mill, said efforts to save the building failed due to lack of information. LeMay, who had worked at The Mill since 2012, was most recently the events manager. It was also at The Mill that LeMay started her theater company, Run of The Mill Theater Productions.

He was involved with the ‘Refounders of The Mill’ group, which hoped to come up with a plan to buy the company and create a co-operative, worker-led structure. Another group, “Save The Mill – A Living Landmark”, focused on obtaining historic landmark status for the building.

“It was a staple of Iowa City and affected the lives of so many people,” LeMay said.

LeMay said it was unfortunate The Mill could not be reopened in the same space, but believes it is more than 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 everyone.

“I think The Mill is the staff, The Mill is the property and how it connects to the community more than the location,” he said.

“I felt so welcomed and connected to my colleagues, (and) many of them turned out to be lifelong friends,” he added – mentioning he met his girlfriend during a karaoke at The Mill.

A “multipurpose development”

The Moen Group acquired the property in 2002 and “did everything we could to ensure The Mill continued to operate,” Moen said. He said a commitment to the owners of The Mill was “to incorporate The Mill into a new building when the site was developed”.

The description of the site’s razing is that of a “complete demolition of the building,” according to the city’s online records. The demolition contractor listed on the permit is Walford-based DW Zinser.

The building, which was constructed in 1922, had a number of structural problems. The property is currently appraised at $1.16 million, according to the Iowa City appraiser.

Kevin Monson of Neumann Monson Architects said demolition should begin within the next two weeks. A tentative post-demolition development schedule is another year to complete the design and two years for construction, Monson said.

The development is currently in the design phase, Monson said, adding how information is collected at the live entertainment venue, as well as other potential additions.

Monson said other potential aspects of the development are still being worked on, but it will provide amenities that will complement the downtown area.

“It will be a mixed-use building, so it will include other amenities, probably including housing,” Monson said.

Schickedanz said “there are a lot of eyes on the project” and how it seems the community is interested in moving the project forward “both from a critical standpoint and from a view of the benefits”.

LeMay said it would be great to have a performance space where The Mill used to be, but expressed hesitation about trying to replace what once was.

“Hopefully 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 retaining an important element of a safe community performance space, which was The Mill.”

LeMay said he hoped Christensen and others would be able to “revive” The Mill in the future in another location.

“I think it’s too early to count The Mill,” LeMay said. “…I hope all the people who claim to love The Mill for what it was, what it is, I hope they don’t give up on supporting him when he comes back, wherever he is .”

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