November 29, 2022

Owosso Armory: A Former National Guard Base Brings the Community Together

Completed in 1915, the National Guard built the Victorian-style Owosso Armory in Owosso, Michigan to support the calvary, but almost immediately there was a problem. “[The Armory] was built for a cavalry army with horses just as the automobile was kicking in, so by the time it was built, it was almost obsolete in that they were using tanks and other forms of transportation,” says Josh Adams, the former director at Owosso Main Street, a local organization dedicated to revitalizing the downtown area. “So while the armory was alive and well and occupied, it went through these various forms of use.”

However, from its earliest days as a stopping point on a soldier’s journey, to its many iterations as a beloved venue, hosting parties and proms—as well as the famed musical talents of then-early-career musicians Bob Seger and Alice Cooper—the armory had an enduring relevance to the town.

Despite the armory’s decades of evolution, the building, with its ornate brick exterior overlooking the Shiawassee River, became vacant in 2007 when the 144th Military Police Company moved to a more modern, updated facility. Now, more than a century after its last brick was laid, the armory is growing even more as a business incubator and a gathering place for the community.

photo by: Albert Martenis

Detail view of the Owosso Armory entrance.

Taking Up the Challenge

In 2013, passionate leaders, local developers, and enthusiastic community members came together to reimagine the armory’s future. Like many communities throughout the United States. Owosso is a town of roughly 15,000 people—a sizable percentage of which are living in poverty—and suburban sprawl left historic downtown Owosso with an underutilized Main Street business and arts district. Local leaders needed affordable, modern office space, and everyone could benefit from a community-centric public space that welcomed arts and culture.

Revitalizing a century-plus-year-old, roughly 26,000-square-foot former armory into a space that served the current needs of the community was no easy feat. Some of the building’s most notable features were ones that either needed significant repairs or to be removed entirely.

“It had this nice, wonderful hardwood gym floor that had buckled over the years, some parts of the floor were heaved up by one or two feet,” said Adams. However, with careful removal of the boards, the renovation experts were able to work their magic and the floor—now flat—got to stay.

Even better is the view from the west side of the building. A large window was put in so visitors and tenants could overlook the river, every now and then spotting people taking their kayaks and canoes out for a ride.

While the armory’s future had been envisioned and there was buy-in from the Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce, which now owns and manages the building, there was still one major obstacle: money. Without enough funding, the project stagnated and the armory’s future drifted into uncertainty.

Until the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) stepped in.

The Armory Is Saved

A subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, NTCIC works to make saving historic buildings not only financially feasible but true community assets. Because the Owosso Armory’s business and nonprofit incubator created high quality jobs and supported growing local businesses, it was eligible for New Markets Tax Credits, which are awarded to projects that provide vitally needed goods and services to historically underinvested communities.

The armory, in particular, was a special project for NTCIC—and one that paved the way for future projects like it in other small towns across the country. A special project calls for a special fund called the Irvin Henderson Main Street Revitalization Fund. Named for NTCIC’s former chairman of the board of directors, a tireless advocate for historic preservation in underserved communities, the fund supports projects in main street communities towns like Owosso.

photo by: Albert Martenis

An interior view of one of the suites inside the Owosso Armory.

photo by: Albert Martenis

A look at one of the workspaces on the second floor of the Owosso Armory.

“One of the challenges that exists and persists is that development initiatives on main street commercial corridors can be challenged to realize the maximum benefits of the credits. Unfortunately, financing and transaction fees associated with utilizing tax credits will be the same regardless of the size of the project and the equity gained from these tools can be ‘eaten up’ by these fees. We created this fund to help minimize these costs and bring as much benefit to the project as possible,” says Laura Burns, community impact compliance manager at NTCIC.

The measure of size of a revitalization project is a matter of perspective. Owosso Armory renovation had a total development cost of approximately $5.7 million, of which NTCIC provided over $1.2 million in NMTC allocation, a sizable chunk. That was exactly the funding the armory project needed to move forward.

“When you’re in a big city, a $1 million to $ 6 million dollar investment might be small but when you’re looking at communities of 20,000 people or less, it’s amazing what a $1 million or a $4 million investment will do,” Adams says. “It can literally change the fabric of the community.”

In Owosso, that’s exactly what happened.

photo by: Albert Martenis

A look at the entryway of the Owosso Armory decorated for the fall in November 2021.

The Owosso Armory Today

Entering the armory today, you immediately notice the roominess. The walls don’t reach the ceiling, so visitors feel the vaulted expanse of open air—a literal and symbolic reminder that this is a shared space.

Inside, there are 24 tenants, including both businesses and nonprofits. There’s everything from real estate agents to a tux and bridal shop, from a church to a financial services company, and from counseling services to the local United Way. Anchoring the group are the Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Development Center, and the Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership, which provide invaluable—not to mention easily accessible—services to the tenants by nature of being in the same building.

photo by: Albert Martenis

An aerial view of Pride at Owosso Armory, one of the many community gathering events at the building.

The diverse array of tenants is intentional, not just in terms of products or services, but also in the identities of the people spearheading these businesses and nonprofits. The armory’s mission was to have tenants that are Michigan-based and that are minority- or women-owned businesses.

For Albert Martenis, the facility manager, the importance of diversity in his hometown is personal.

“Being born and raised in Owosso, then leaving and now being back for just over 10 years, it is great to help lead that continued movement of equity and being able to show what diversity looks like in Owosso, Michigan. I’m a gay male professional who works with a Southern Baptist community church that has its offices in my property and holds a service in our community room on Sunday and it’s been such a fabulous relationship that’s allowed both of our entities to grow,” Martenis said.

“Not only having a diverse business mix but also having a pastor who is a Black male in our community and to be able to have representation in the property that is reflecting what we’re seeing in our schools in the community is fantastic. It’s great to be able to see people like you working in these spaces and opening those doors up to all community members. It’s humbling and healing to be able to come back to my hometown and help make this happen and be a part of that movement.”

photo by: Albert Martenis

A look at the exterior of Owosso Armory lit up to mark St. Patrick's Day in 2022.

The armory is having ripple effects. It’s now the site of the Owosso farmers market and one of the centers for the river trailhead. The project is inspiring more outside-the-box thinking in redevelopment, too. Adams mentioned an old bowling alley that went out of business during the pandemic that has since been turned into an indoor fieldhouse for softball, soccer, and batting cages, as well as an old JCPenney store that is now a dance studio.

The Owosso Armory revitalization wouldn’t have been possible without the combination of tax credits facilitated by NTCIC, the National Trust, and the local Owosso Main Street, the statewide Michigan Main Street, Main Street America, and more all coming together in collaboration.

For art lovers, history buffs, and anyone who enjoys drop-in-friendly coworking spaces, the armory is the perfect place to gather.

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Mandy Shunnarah (they/them) is a writer who loves old things. When they're not writing their next book, they can often be found wandering around historic places like theatres, cemeteries, and author homes (usually with permission). Learn more at mandyshunnarah.com.

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