City considers adding artist community

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Wendy Holmes, of non-proifit developer Artspace, talks about the possibility of building affordable artists housing and workspaces in Dearborn during a Wednesday meeting at City Hall. A team of Artspace reps will do a feasibility study in June to assess demand for such a project.

‘We like to say if your foot doesn’t fall through the floor, it’s not an Artspace project.’
— Wendy Holmes, Artspace vice president

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN— Development officials are considering a “creative” approach to filling some of the myriad vacant buildings and storefronts throughout the city’s commercial districts: Give ’em a little Bohemian flavor.

Last week the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority hosted a forum to discuss the possibility of developing an artists’ community that likely would feature combined living/working space for a broad group of artistic types. City officials touted the idea as a chance to enhance local cultural offerings — and perhaps spur an economic boom.

“This is really an excellent opportunity for Dearborn to make its mark, so to speak, on the region for all sorts of artistic, creative things,” Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said.

On hand for the presentation was the nonprofit developer Artspace. The Minneapolis-based outfit specializes in bringing together public and private capital to provide affordable space for artists and arts organizations, often by performing comprehensive restorations on vacant buildings needing serious work.

“We like to say if your foot doesn’t fall through the floor, it’s not an Artspace project,” said Wendy Holmes, Artspace vice president of consulting and resource management.

Artspace representatives already have conducted a preliminary tour of the city to get a feel for the arts scene and look at potential sites for such a development. Holmes said community demand is the key to establishing an Artspace project because there are so many different elements that must come together to make it work.

She said she sees the seeds of that potential here in Dearborn.

“Henry Ford was an entrepreneur who was a creative person making something nobody had ever thought of before, so there is already that tradition,” Holmes said. “And the diversity of cultural institutions here definitely stands out.”

There’s nothing that would qualify as a “typical” Artspace development, organization officials say. In its more than 20 projects nationwide, the only common theme is giving artists somewhere to do their thing. In some cases it involves the preservation of historic, but worn buildings, such as the organization’s first project in Minneapolis that turned an old Masonic temple into a midrise dancer’s studio.

Others involve reclaiming old industrial sites, like the Buffalo Lofts in Buffalo, N.Y., that took a mothballed electric car factory and turned it into 36 live/work units with an additional 24 newly constructed units.

Funding for Artspace projects come from a variety of sources including low-income housing tax credits – the single largest source; historic tax credits; tax-increment financing; city and state cultural facility grants; a conventional first mortgage; and philanthropic gifts.

Artspace also utilizes federal, state and local resources available through established funding programs that assist in creating affordable housing and economic development projects, according to the company’s Web site.

A team from Artspace is scheduled to return to Dearborn in June to conduct a two-day feasibility study. Holmes said the visit would include site hunting, as well as sit-downs with leaders of the city’s civic organizations, municipal groups and the philanthropic community. Although the EDDDA engaged Artspace to survey the city, the search for locations will not be limited to the eastside Michigan Avenue district, though it will be the first considered.

More important than the site, however, Holmes said, is the buy-in from the community.

“A community has to desire this,” she said. “It really has to come from a real demand from the community and a genuine support or it just doesn’t work.”

If the visit goes well – meaning there is enough commitment from the various community stakeholders – Artspace would then go about assessing the demand of local artists as far as needs for space and what they’d be willing to pay.

Due to the complexity of the Artspace model, the timeline for one of its projects is three to five years. But if it did come to pass, it could be the dawning of a renaissance city and company officials are hoping.

“Artists are always at the edge of economic change,” Holmes said. “In almost every project we’ve done we’ve found that soon thereafter there are new commercial developments popping up across the street or million-dollar condos going in.”