Persistence pays for Armory rebirth

By: Edward Stratton - Jun 16, 2016
Source: The Daily Astorian
A growing crowd glided under the din of pop music around the expansive gym floor inside the Astoria Armory Saturday. The skaters included a mixture of kids, parents and attendees from the inaugural Astoria Gay Pride Gala held the night before.

Behind the scenes, Armory supporters and organizers gathered on the mezzanine, toasting the continued resurgence of the nearly 75-year-old recreation hall.

“It’s just so great to see how full of life the building is tonight,” said Armory board member Bruce Jones, who joined after retiring as the local commander of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Everything to everyone

Events Coordinator Robyn Koustik, the lone Armory employee, said she has become somewhat of a caseworker, helping all the organizations that seek out the Armory for space, and organizing the Friends’ resume-writing workshops, health clinics and other charity endeavors.

Since volunteers cleared the former storage space out two years ago and opened the doors, the Armory has become a hub for community groups, from the skate park in the basement and the LGBT community’s Q Center to Corri Buck’s Filling Empty Bellies each afternoon in the lobby. Last week alone, the building hosted a skate night, the city’s inaugural Gay Pride Gala, Shanghaied Roller Dolls derby practices, youth skating programs, college gym classes and several lunches for homeless and low-income residents.

Koustik has been supported by a small army of volunteers. Jawna Bowerman, named volunteer of the year, said she first became interested in the Armory, where she had last skated the night she turned 21, after learning her granddaughter could skate for free if she helped out. “Now it’s like my second home,” she said.

Charitable organizations have taken notice of the Armory’s work. United Way of Clatsop County recently added the Armory to its annual fundraising campaign. The Oregon Community Foundation has also donated $20,000 to help improve the Armory’s lobby and kitchen.

Filling Empty Bellies

In the kitchen Thursday, Mike Doran helped other volunteers serve chili dogs, potato salad, chips and cupcakes to the homeless and low-income residents who filtered into the lobby. After the others were served, he loaded up a couple plates and sat down for lunch.

Doran said he has used the program, which provides all comers with lunch six days a week and brunch on Sundays, to supplement the meager food stamps and disability benefits he receives. He sees helping Buck, temporarily sidelined after surgery, as a way to give back. He and others used to get their lunches from Buck in parks and parking lots around Astoria. When it rained, diners would take their lunch and find a place to hide, or just sit and eat in the wetness. Then in February, the Armory invited Buck’s program indoors.

“I think it’s beautiful,” said Doran, who also works security during Shanghaied Roller Doll matches. “If it wasn’t for the program, we’d still be out in the rain.”

Stein said the Armory’s board wanted the building to be a community center for all, including those most in need. “It’s not all about … the mayor’s ball, assistance league and those things. We also want to help folks who don’t have anything,” he said.

Bringing back the Armory

In its heyday, the Armory would take in more than 3,000 people, attracting such acts as Deep Purple, Buffalo Springfield and Jack Benny. But with all of its infrastructural issues, the reopened Armory has been limited to several hundred, at most.

Jones said the Friends have held off starting any major work while the group secures a mortgage and improvement loan, part of it guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Helping secure the loan is the Armory’s lender, Craft3, which acquired the Armory two years ago from the Columbia River Maritime Museum and leased the building to the Friends for $1 a year.

“We believe we’re within about a month of getting the loan signed,” Jones said. “Once we have the improvement loan, we have subcontractors lined up to start doing the work.”

Jones said the loan, part of a $590,000 improvement plan for the Armory, will help the Friends add a landing and stairway outside a set of doors on the northern side of the building, nailed shut to prevent people from falling 15 feet to the ground below. The additional exit will help the Friends seek a higher occupancy for concerts and other larger events.

The money will also go toward improving the acoustics, sound system and restrooms, while repairing the roof, replacing broken windows and modernizing the lobby and kitchen. The Armory had already received a $90,000 loan guarantee from the city of Astoria for window restoration.

Jones said the improvements will help the Armory target more trade shows, such as the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association this summer, that will provide revenue for the Armory’s charitable efforts.

“With actual money, with real funding, it’s just going to be phenomenal what this building is like five years from now,” Jones said.