Campaign for live-work art spaces gives community hope

What people and communities desire most during a tough economic period is hope. A genuine feeling that better times lie just over the horizon inspires people to keep going, to continue the often frustrating crawl toward the oasis of recovery.

Put into the context of the revitalization of downtown Olympia, there are many reasons to have hope. Not the least among those is City Council’s recent commitment to begin the cleanup of the isthmus eyesore, partnership with several community interest groups, and its rejuvenation of The Washington Center for the Performing Arts building.

But a lesser-known project targeting live-work spaces for artists of varied disciplines has the potential to help the city achieve two important long-term goals: more vibrant downtown activity and downtown housing.

The Olympia Artspace Alliance will soon celebrate its one-year anniversary, which will surprise many who have never even heard of the organization, let alone the mission they intend to accomplish.

In the fall of 2009, the City of Olympia awarded a $12,500 grant for a presentation conducted by Artspace Projects Inc. (API), a nonprofit corporation based in Minneapolis, Minn. It has developed a successful model for creating combined housing and work spaces for artists in 27 cities across America, including Everett, Portland and three in Seattle.

Artists live and work in the space and pay rent.

The presentation led to a tour of potential downtown building sites by artists, real estate agents, financiers, city staff and elected officials, and culminated in a community event attended by more than 300 people at the Washington Center.

Out of that meeting, the Olympia Artspace Alliance nonprofit was formed to begin fundraising for a $42,500 market study to determine if the project would be successful in South Sound. The city pledged $10,000 if the OAA could raise the remaining funds.

The OAA has been moving slowly but is now within $10,000 of reaching its goal, which must be met by year’s end to capture the city’s funds. It has fundraising events planned for Harbor Days and at the Rutledge Corn Maze on Oct. 18.

With more than 2,000 artists living within the city of Olympia, according to OAA, and a development model that appears to require no significant public investment, the project seems custom-built for Olympia.

In its other projects, including those in the Northwest, API has provided 85 percent of the funding, though it is unclear if that includes local jurisdictions. The local nonprofit would raise the remainder.

The benefits to downtown Olympia from such a project could fit within the city’s revitalization goals, but the Artspace franchise concept is only one model the OAA is considering.

The 12-member OAA board of Thurston County residents recognizes it might take six to eight years to complete a local Artspace project. But they are passionate folks committed to the long-term.

They believe Olympia can become a mecca for the creative arts, and that building a city arts center in the downtown core can drive economic activity.

Both are good reasons to have hope.