The Mill Refounders hoping to preserve restaurant

A group of former employees and friends of The Mill are working together to preserve the culture of the iconic Iowa City restaurant and social space as it faces a potential sale.


Raquele Decker

The Mill building is seen on Thursday, September 3, 2020.

John Reasoner, News Reporter

A local group hopes to keep the spirit of The Mill alive as the iconic building looks for a new owner.

In mid-June, the owners of Iowa City restaurant and entertainment venue The Mill announced they would put the building up for sale. Within a few weeks, a group of former Mill employees and community supporters came together with an idea to purchase the restaurant as a co-op, known as the Refounders of the Mill.

According to Rich LeMay, a former Mill employee and member of the Refounders group, the group had failed to raise the necessary funds to purchase the rights to the restaurant and to lease the restaurant’s current location.

RELATED: The Mill’s future uncertain as current owners step down 

The group – formed by LeMay and David Sterling, among other former employees and frequenters of the Mill – started soon after The Mill’s ownership announced they would be selling the restaurant in a Facebook post on June 18.

LeMay said that he and a group of friends he knew from his time at The Mill began discussing the possibility of purchasing the restaurant as a group. The group joined forces with Sterling, a member of Iowa City’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, to develop a plan to run The Mill as a workers’ co-op.

“As far as I’m concerned, the workers should be in charge of it,” Sterling said.

The Refounders soon got in contact with Alicia Trimble, a historic preservationist at Three Cottages Historic Preservation Consulting and Rehabilitation, to look into the logistics of The Mill’s status as a local historic landmark.

The building housing The Mill, Trimble said, was built in 1928 as a car dealership. It changed ownership a number of times over the decades, becoming a garage at one point. By the 1960s, the building was converted to a restaurant space and went through even more names and owners, until it officially became The Mill.

In addition to its business history, Trimble said she believes that The Mill has greatly contributed to the cultural history of Iowa City. Trimble noted that many local artists, musicians, and political activists in Iowa City have been able to gain followings at The Mill and to connect with locals in unique ways.

“I think that’s something that’d be absolutely tragic if we lost it,” Trimble said.

RELATED: Owners, artists discuss The Mill’s past, present, and future

While Trimble believes The Mill’s cultural and economic history makes it an easy candidate for historic landmark status, to be given this status,  the property would have to be donated to a nonprofit organization, or a supermajority of Iowa City Council would need to vote to preserve the building. Trimble said something she believes this is unlikely to happen.

The future of the building is uncertain, as the building is being considered for purchase by at least one private party but would face hefty renovation costs to bring it up to code Trimble said.

Some members of the Refounders, including LeMay and Sterling, believe the culture of The Mill is not tied to the building itself, but to the community of individuals who gather there.

“It’s a feeling,” LeMay said. “The Mill is a sense of community, a community space that we want to continue or to survive.”