Hampton is looking for a developer to finally transform the former National Guard Armory building into a downtown destination.
On Nov. 17, the city issued a request for proposals from developers who could preserve the historic integrity of the 79-year-old, two-story brick structure while operating a craft brewery, distillery or live entertainment venue there. Proposals are due Jan. 22.
"We think the Armory is the perfect spot for a creative entrepreneur who can see the beauty of that building and play an important role in the future of Hampton," said Hampton Economic Development Director Leonard Sledge.
The 14,000-square-foot Armory building at 504 N. King St., owned by the city, is in walking distance to downtown restaurants and shops and is near the new Hampton Circuit Courthouse and a 14-acre mixed-use redevelopment site. Since the National Guard left for a newer building in 1993, the dilapidated building has been unoccupied for a couple decades although it's been used for city storage.
Ten years ago, a team led by investment adviser Mark Hollingsworth pitched a plan to the city to create a concert venue at the Armory building. It would be similar to The NorVa in downtown Norfolk. The estimated building capacity is about 1,200 people; slightly less than The NorVa's 1,500.
"The building — it was ridiculous to sit there empty, not being used. I thought it was tailor-made for adaptive reuse for a music venue," Hollingsworth said recently. "There's nothing like it on our side of the water until you get to Richmond."
Around the same time in 2005, Wendy Hylton, owner of Gymnastics Inc. at 390 Salters Creek Road, proposed moving her gymnastics center there. She had grown up in the area, spent a year on the proposal and had a loan in place, she said. The central large area of the building is essentially a gymnasium or auditorium space.
"They just couldn't make a decision," Hylton said of the city, adding she was sad to see the building continue to go empty.
Both she and Hollingsworth were told that a decision couldn't be made until that area of downtown was addressed in the Downtown Master Plan. The Armory District was added as an amendment to the 2004 master plan in 2006. Still, the amended plan says the Armory provides a unique opportunity as a live performance venue, although city staff tried to back away from that in 2009, according to a Daily Press story published at the time.
Hollingsworth, who now lives in California, said he kept pursuing the concert venue plan through 2008, including responding to a request for proposals. But talks with the city petered out as the recession took hold and financing didn't look as promising, he said. City staff never gave a price or what they were looking for, he said.
"I would love to see an appropriate use happen so that our efforts were not all for naught," Hollingsworth said, adding he had been inquiring about the building since 1996.
"I'd love to see something go in there," Hylton said in a separate phone interview.
The deteriorated building, constructed in 1936, would need at least $1.2 million in renovations, according to a 2004 consultant's report, which also note the building had lead paint and asbestos. Adjusted for inflation, that's $1.5 million today. Hollingsworth estimated in 2005 the concert venue project would cost $3 million.
St. George Brewing looked at the Armory in 2001 when trying to find a new space after a Christmas Eve fire, said William Spence Jr., director of drinking operations. In addition to cost, parking and tractor-trailer access were also issues.
"I want the city to succeed. It would be an awesome spot but it's just so much money to get that building habitable," Spence said, adding, "It's very cool on paper."
In its request for proposals, the city says it would help get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Landmarks Register to be eligible for state and federal tax credits. The project could also be eligible for other grant programs, tourism-related gap financing or possible tax exemption from the city on the improved value, the city notes.
The Armory site could be a cornerstone of development in the "gateway" to downtown, according to the master plan.
"I still think it has potential as a music venue," said Carlyle Bland, who had joined Hollingsworth as a partner in his attempt to do so.
Bland, who owns Marker 20 and Venture, said the downtown restaurants could benefit from folks stopping by before and after a show.
"I think the more the merrier in downtown," said Bland, who is on the board of the Downtown Hampton Development Partnership.
City staff has shown the building to interested individuals over the past several years, but an agreement never panned out, said Hampton spokesman Fred Gaskins.
The property was last assessed at $820,300, down 21 percent from $1.04 million in fiscal year 2012, according to online city records.
For interested proposers, a site visit is planned for 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 15 and an information session is planned at 1 p.m. at One Franklin St., Suite 600. Call the city's consolidated procurement office at 757-727-2200 for additional details.
Bozick can be reached at 757-247-4741. Sign up for a free weekday business news email at TidewaterBiz.com.