Two local groups setting out to save The Mill in downtown Iowa City
When The Mill owners of 17 years announced they'd be stepping away from the iconic Iowa City venue, there was an immediate outpouring of love and concern for the imperiled business.
"After 17 years of keeping the Mill going through its 58th year in business, it’s time for us to step away," a June 17 social media post from co-owners Dan Ouverson and Marty Christensen read. "We hope that someone else might want to take over the mission to preserve this institution. It’s a cool place and important to a lot of people in Iowa City. Thanks to everyone for their support!"
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Groups mobilize to save the venue
"We saw the news The Mill was closing and obviously we were devastated," Carrie Guenther, a former employee at The Mill and one of the administrators of Save The Mill, said of her former coworker, Carrie Meyer. "(Meyer) brought it up and said, ‘Hey, should we try to do what we can to save it?’ "
The pair, who share fond memories of the music venue/restaurant, said their first step in was to reach out to Alicia Trimble, the owner of Three Cottages Historic Preservation Consulting and Rehabilitation, a historic preservation consulting company.
“I’d actually met my husband at The Mill, so it’s kind of personal for me, as well," Trimble told the Press-Citizen.
While Guenther and Meyer are focused more on the social media side of the endeavor, Trimble is the professional brought to help get The Mill designated as an Iowa City Historic Landmark. Being classified as such would help to preserve the building and make it more difficult to tear down the physical edifice that has been The Mill for over 50 years.
"In Iowa City, if you are a local landmark or part of a local historic district, then you actually have to go through the historic preservation commission to get a building razed," Trimble explained. "If it's a historic building, that can usually only be done if the building is irrecoverably damaged."
Putting in work to get the venue to become a historic landmark
Right now, the group is working slowly toward that goal, which Trimble estimates is still at minimum three or four months away. These efforts include a letter written to the building owner, Marc Moen, asking him to not fight the designation.
The team is also looking for people to help go through old newspapers and their own personal photo collections to find more of the historically significant performances at The Mill and more images of 120 E. Burlington St., when it was a car dealership.
“If you go and look at the back of The Mill, you can still see there are three overhead doors," Trimble said. "It’s a wonky shape, if you look at the building, and I think that’s led previous people who surveyed it to think there were additions, but we can see in the early (fire insurance maps) — from the early 30s — that that’s how it was built.”
Where Save the Mill is interested in preserving the physical aspect of The Mill, Refounders of the Mill is more focused on preserving its soul — though the two groups are not in overt collaboration.
"I'm in an activist group that goes to The Mill frequently, and I always joked that we should try to buy it," David Sterling, one of the administrators for Refounders of The Mill, told the Press-Citizen.
A growing interest; reimagining the building's use
The joke became a real possibility with The Mill's closing. Sterling started the group expecting to have seven or so folks show interest, but one Day One, the group attracted 50 people and quickly swelled to more than 500.
"What I think we can safely say for sure is we want to purchase the rights and assets to The Mill (from the previous owners) and package it up and find another location to launch it," Sterling said, "once COVID cases and deaths stop rising."
This new version of the business would manifest itself as a non-profit, employee-run incarnation opening somewhere downtown that is less expensive to operate than the current location.
How and if that dream comes to fruition is still foggy, but Sterling said they would, ideally, like to see something begin to take shape in the next six months or so. And even if this exact plan doesn't bear out, Sterling said they still believe there'd be enough interest, locally, to pursue a new model with a business that doesn't even use The Mill's name.
"The idea is that anybody who works at the organization has an equal share, in terms of profits and democratic voting power, to some degree," Sterling explained. "The idea being that everyone who works there has representation and nobody is exploiting anybody else's labor."
Though the Press-Citizen wasn't able to reach the building owner Marc Moen for comment before press time regarding his opinion on either group's plans, he had previously expressed a hope to revive the business.
"Our hope is that someone will continue to operate The Mill," Moen told the Press-Citizen in a June 22 email. "There seems to be a lot of interest in making sure this continues as a live music venue."
As Trimble and Gruenther explained, there are fewer and fewer places like The Mill in Iowa City as new construction reshapes the city's skyline and old businesses lose their place in the Iowa City landscape to history. The Mill, as an institution, expresses what the pair perceives to be a rare bastion of free thought and community that defines the soul of the city.
"As we’re losing, one by one, these businesses and these older buildings and the landscape of the downtown area is changing, it does lose that feeling of closeness and home," Guenther said. "Iowa City has a very, very special feel, and I think anyone who’s lived here or spent time around here gets that ... (The Mill) is such a varied venue that supports so many aspects of Iowa City life; there’s nothing else like it.”
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