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WWU has sold the landmark Bellingham Armory. Here's what new owners plan next.

WWU Foundation sells landmark Bellingham Armory building

The Western Washington University Foundation has sold the landmark Armory building, which sits on 1.3 acres and overlooks Bellingham Bay, to a pair of developers who grew up here.
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The Western Washington University Foundation has sold the landmark Armory building, which sits on 1.3 acres and overlooks Bellingham Bay, to a pair of developers who grew up here.

The landmark Armory building is now under private ownership, but the new owners say the community will have a chance to help determine its future.

On Wednesday the Western Washington University Foundation announced the sale of the 1.3-acre property for $1.5 million to Curt O'Connor and Pete Dawson. The property includes the 60,000-square-foot Armory building that's known for its Chuckanut sandstone facade, heavy timber roof beams and sweeping views of Bellingham Bay. The Armory, at 525 N. State St., was built by the Washington National Guard in 1910.

In a news release from Western, O'Connor and Dawson said they plan on getting input from the public as they work on plans for the property.

"Our objective is to preserve this iconic structure and ideally repurpose it in a way that will provide public benefit," said O'Connor in the news release.

When reached for comment, O'Connor said that ideally they would love to see it used in a way that allows the public to experience it in some capacity.

"Of course this is an investment for us, but we're not in a hurry; we're more interested in finding a great fit," O'Connor said.

O'Connor owns the real estate investment firm Nor Pac Equities Development Inc. in Seattle. Dawson is president of Bellingham-based Dawson Construction. Also working with the owners is RMC Architects and local real estate developer David Johnston, known for redeveloping historic buildings throughout Whatcom County.

Other restoration projects Dawson Construction has worked on in Whatcom County include the Waples Mercantile Building in Lynden and Whatcom Middle School, both of which were nearly destroyed by fires. The company is currently building the new Sehome High School, which is expected to be ready for the 2019 school year.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale will benefit Western's Compass 2 Campus program, according to the news release. The program pairs Western student mentors with 5th- to 12th-grade students from diverse backgrounds in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

The building was used by the National Guard and Army Reserve until 1953. In November 1953 the main floor of the building became home to a roller skating rink called Rolladium, operating until 1989 when it was closed because of water damage.

Western purchased the property from the state in 1972 for $1. After the rink closed it was used to house furniture as well as sets and costumes for the University's theater department.

The building was transferred to the WWU Foundation in January 2016 with the intent of finding a qualified buyer. Dawson signed an option to buy the business in July 2016, but then did a feasibility study before closing the deal.

O'Connor said that in studying the building they found the water damage was not too extensive and that Western was a great steward for the building. He does expect it to be a multi-year project, particularly since they don't have a set plan in place yet.

"The bones of the building are remarkably strong and the exterior is beautiful. But it's a shell. Inside is just a vast, cavernous space with a few interior walls, no plumbing, no power. So whatever we do inside will be built out from scratch," said O'Connor, who grew up in Bellingham and remembers hanging out at the rink with friends.

The owners are planning to hold a public open house at the armory, probably in the fall, to get community feedback about the best use of the building.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz
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