If three months into Iowa’s COVID-19 pandemic there were some locals who still hoped life might return to normal someday, the announcement that The Mill restaurant and music venue was being sold off was likely a wake-up call.
The Mill, 120 E Burlington St, was a stomping ground for generations of townies and a destination for visitors. Having set up shop in three different locations and survived a myriad of challenges over the course of nearly six decades, it seemed that if any local business could outlast the pandemic, it’d be the Mill.
But on June 18, a Facebook post on the Mill’s page announced it was time for the owners to “step away” and for the restaurant and entertainment venue to close its doors.
“We hope that someone else wants to take over the mission to preserve the institution,” the post read. “It’s a cool place and important to a lot of people.”
Indeed, hundreds of people, devastated by the news, set to work right away. Two campaigns were formed — Refounders of The Mill and Save The Mill–A Living Landmark — both with different approaches to preserving this piece of Iowa City’s soul.
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The Mill first opened its doors in 1962 as a coffeehouse and restaurant called The Coffee Mill. Founded by Keith Dempster (a Grinnell native who passed away in 2013), a fire forced the building to move into the former Old Carvutos Restaurant space on Burlington Street. In 1972, it moved to its current location at 120 E Burlington St, between Dubuque and Clinton. This is where the Mill became a bona fide institution.
“The Mill has been pretty much my go-to place for food and entertainment since I was a journalism undergrad at the [University of Iowa],” said Todd Kimm, a co-founder of Little Village. “I can’t count the number of great live music shows I’ve seen there over the years.”
Kimm, now a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky, said if there was ever a bronze plaque or monument built to commemorate the Mill, it would have the following words engraved upon it: “The birthplace of the Iowa City music scene.”
“The photos on the walls are just a glimpse of all the people who have played there,” he said. “Its importance as a home base and incubator for local, internationally treasured folk musicians like Greg Brown, Dave Moore and Pieta Brown is unfathomable. That’s music-scene heritage up there with Greenwich Village in the 1960s and Athens, Georgia in the ’80s.”
David Sterling, 28, works as an office clerk and cashier at City Hall. They have been going to the Mill for the last 18 years.
“One of my parents had a lot of contacts in the local folk music scene, so we’d stop by there for meals and the occasional early evening show,” Sterling said. “Over the years I could stay later for the occasional punk and jazz shows, too. Knowing a lot of these people were friends in my parent’s community was foundational for me. As an activist in my adult years, it’s been a terrific spot for bringing people together; I think the spirit of grassroots music isn’t too different from grassroots organizing.”
By June 2003, Keith and his wife Pam Dempster decided to close the Mill due to Keith’s ailing health, also selling their Coralville farm on Dempster Drive.
Marty Christensen, 56, is a musician and entrepreneur who played at the Mill in the ’90s and 2000s, performing with bands like Dave Zollo, Bo Ramsey, Dennis McMurrin, Catfish Keith and Shame Train, just to name a few.
“I got to know the owners Pam and Keith pretty well,” Christensen said, “and I really loved playing that room. It was a really special room for music. When I heard that Keith had decided to close it, I drove down to his place and began to try to convince him to sell it to me. He finally agreed, but I couldn’t tell anyone until he had his last day of business.”
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On June 19, 2003, the Mill was back in business under the ownership of Christensen and Dan Ouverson. While the venue mostly catered to the traditions of blues and folk music under Dempster’s ownership, Christensen and Ouverson extended their invitation to artists across the creative spectrum, including those with local roots and others from outside the state.
“We started with a $60K investment and a five-year lease,” Christensen said. “We never got a renewal and it was month-to-month for the last 12 years. It was stressful for me most of the time. The owners didn’t make much money, and I was rarely there during business hours, but I hear a lot of people had a really good time. I’m glad they did.”
While the pandemic complicated matters, problems had been brewing at the venue long before that. Besides the Mill, Ouverson had opened three other restaurants and Christensen had a full-time job and “a lot of projects going on.”
“I really couldn’t spend the time there that I needed to,” Christensen said. “When the bank came down next door it had a huge negative impact on business, and at the same time a large number of new bars and restaurants opened up.”
Christensen and Ouverson had already considered selling the Mill in late 2019, even discussing the prospect with potential investors and buyers. Then came the pandemic, which “couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Christensen said, resulting in a full shutdown of the business on May 2.
“We tried to do carryout and delivery for a while, but we weren’t covering labor, and were buried by the rent and other overhead,” Christensen said. “I just didn’t have the stomach for massive debt and starting all over in the hole. I already did that once when I was a lot younger.”
Fans of the Mill were shocked to learn the owners were selling the business, and they grieved once again when it was announced on Aug. 23 that they were auctioning off some of the business’s belongings. But the items offered at the auction, which is being conducted by Backes Auctioneers & Realty (based in Raymond, Iowa), are just “common” kitchen and bar equipment such as seating, glassware and dishes, according to Christensen, not the Mill’s more iconic features.
“The ‘look and feel’ of the Mill, the PA [power amplifier], and other key parts will go into storage,” he said, “and when the pandemic passes we hope someone will be interested in buying it to open it back up.”
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Christensen and Ouverson control the LLC that owns the restaurant, and while Christensen said he hopes someone will want to restart the Mill, it’s proven to be a difficult sell. Twelve potential buyers dwindled to one offer too low for them to accept.
“That’s a small fraction of the debt we have right now,” Christensen said. “It was beyond insulting. I have no doubt COVID is the reason we didn’t get any serious offers. I also believe that a whole lot more bars, restaurants and venues might close in the next six months. Many of those will be the small and special places with soul. It’s really sad. But when the pandemic really tapers off there will be a lot of opportunity, and in that climate the Mill could happen again.”
Members and supporters of the groups Refounders of The Mill and Save The Mill–A Living Landmark are hoping for just that.
The Refounders want to move the venue to a more “family-accessible” location near or within the downtown area, and “transform” the business model “into a worker-owned business cooperative, which will facilitate an equal opportunity for all employees to be paid a fair wage while also having a stake in the company’s success.”
Sterling is a co-founder and organizer of Refounders of The Mill. Along with creating the initial group, the founders put down capital to help kick off the fundraising and have been managing the group’s social media and building contacts for guidance and direction.
“I’d joked with a lot of activist friends about purchasing the Mill before,” Sterling said, “but when news broke about it closing, I knew I had to fire a shot in the dark.”
“To me, the core of this undertaking is making sure the culture surrounding the Mill can be preserved as best as possible. Beyond the food, the shows and even the building it’s known most for, the people the Mill caters to are particularly active in the community. Those people include the workers the venue relies on to operate, so I believe they can be best supported in this time by helping them purchase the venue with funding from the community. A workers’ cooperative will allow a democratic say in how the organization is run, while enriching the community’s access to decision-makers and collaboration.”
Refounders launched a GoFundMe campaign on July 22 with a goal of raising $50,000 to help reopen the venue in accordance to their vision.
Save The Mill was launched on Facebook in July and currently has over 2,700 members. Founded by former Mill server Carrie Meyer, Save The Mill organizers petitioned the building’s owner, Marc Moen, to support the nomination to designate the structure a historical landmark in an application to the Historic Preservation Commission.
Meyer told KGAN, “It just seemed like it would be a loss to Iowa City for it to disappear.”
Along with their efforts to preserve the building as a historic landmark, the group’s administrators are encouraging people to share their photos and stories about the Mill to enlighten and educate others on the important role the establishment has played in the community.
Save The Mill administrator Carrie Guenther posted an update on the situation on Aug. 19. According to Guenther, they “reached out to the building owner to work out what options are available for the building and the business, but as nothing solid has been decided or offered, we haven’t had anything definite to share with the group.”
The group has also met with Refounders of The Mill organizers “to see what options there are for making both groups’ goals a reality.”
“The only thing we can ask for regarding support at this time,” the post continues, “is that you continue sharing photos and events that happened at the Mill, and that we try to reach as many people as possible.”
The petition has hundreds of signatures, but has not received a response from Moen. As of publication time, Moen hasn’t replied to Little Village’s request for comment, either.
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Christensen said he has “deep respect” for what the two Mill preservation groups are trying to do, but added they may be fighting a losing battle.
“I personally feel the Mill has no future in that building,” he said.
In a sort of eulogy for the Mill shared with Little Village, former Mill employee and longtime Iowa City resident Chris Wiersema lovingly but critically reflected on the internal culture of the business, describing it as messy and ultimately untenable.
“In my tenure, the soundpeople were often either angry, purposely inept or drunk — but never all three at once. They were also asked to work 12-hour days which their pay in no way reflected, with electricity that forever audibly haunted the PA, and with condescending bands whose size of talent and size of ego would have been better served switching places. The shows went on, sometimes with people in the audience, a few times with them spilling out the sides and the doors and screaming,” he recalled. “The staff of servers, bartenders and kitchen where all the stunning, lean, bright young things (and Paul, an institution in his own right) that you find in locally owned business: under-paid, overworked, dizzyingly altruistic and tortured (sometimes purposely) by constant rumors of closure. … They were all consumed by what happened in those four walls with a roof that leaked on to the stage.”
Whether they felt the Mill’s closure was surprising or inevitable, everyone Little Village reached out to expressed hope that the venue would survive.
“It is a cultural crossroads, mostly musical, that needs to be saved and kept going,” Kimm said.
Mike Kuhlenbeck is a journalist based in Des Moines, Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 286.