Artspace likes Augusta, but project will take time

Artspace developers want to build affordable work and living spaces for artists in Augusta, but it could take years and miles of bureaucratic red tape before that becomes a reality.

The nonprofit real estate development company returned to Augusta on Monday to reveal the results of a survey conducted this summer that gauged demand for a potential project. Of 602 artists surveyed, 186 would be interested in renting either a blended apartment/work studio space or a creative space alone.

Artspace project manager Joe Butler said that interest could make Augusta a candidate for a 50,000-square-foot, 40-unit project ideally set in the cultural district of downtown, bordered by the Savannah River, 10th, Walker and Fifth streets.

What’s needed now is governmental support so a lengthy process of securing funding and feasibility planning can begin.

“If Augusta wants this, it’s going to require some local champions,” Butler said. “Folks that will continue to have a vision over the course of the next several years.”

The Augusta Commission must now take up the issue of signing on to a pre-development contract with Artspace, which Mayor Deke Copenhaver said could be discussed within the next several months. If a contract is signed, the group would begin “a deeper level of information gathering,” that would include forming a steering committee, identifying potential buildings to renovate, and applying for funding, Butler said.

Artspace utilizes federal low-income housing tax credits to pay for roughly 60 percent of project costs. The rest is paid for in philanthropic donations and city and state funding.

Vice president for special projects Roy Close said the low-income tax credits are useful but are difficult to secure and not guaranteed. He said he hopes government officials approve the partnership with Artspace sooner rather than later so the group can begin applying for the tax credits before Georgia’s 2014 deadline.

It could then take a three- to four-year process to complete a project, he said.

“This is not just for the artists,” Cross said. “This is for the community. It’s been measured, and these projects do in fact make for stronger neighborhoods.”

Since its launch in 1979, Artspace has completed 35 projects across the country, with 12 more under construction or in the pre-development phase.

Of the 186 interested artists in Augusta, 41 percent live at or below 60 percent of the area median income, boosting the project’s chances of securing the tax credits.

Forty-three percent use a space in their home to work and 40 percent don’t have a dedicated space at all. The responders were largely younger than 30 years old and specialized mostly in painting, drawing, music and photography.

Augusta jazz musician Karen Gordon said blended artistic real estate not only helps the artists but could also bring a revitalization to the culture of downtown.

“To have a place where artists, musicians, sculptors and painters could work and live together, it’s just exciting,” she said. “Collaboration is important in all industries, not just education not just technology ... it reminds me of the Harlem Renaissance, some artists and musicians supporting each other’s projects.”

Jesse Lee Vaughn, painter and owner of Americana Artworks and the Haunted Pillar Tattoo parlors, said the building could help solve a problem many artists find in Augusta, which is a lack of affordable real estate to create art or make music.

Copenhaver said the commission has been supportive of the Artspace concept since developers first visited the city in 2012. However, it could take some time, especially with holidays approaching, to have a public discussion and vote.

In the meantime, Greater Augusta Arts Council Executive Director Brenda Durant said the community must keep the Artspace project on the radar. She urged supporters to prepare questions to pitch to November 2014 election candidates as they campaign around the city, and let them know this is a priority.

“If the question is continually asked ... that’s going to resonate,” she said.

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