What began as a program to use vacant downtown storefronts as showcases for Tacoma’s vibrant artists has started to focus on business incubation, and it’s working.
In the past few months, three groups that found free space in commercial buildings through Spaceworks Tacoma have made the leap into the marketplace. A youth-focused creative arts organization, working in the city for a decade, has its first permanent headquarters. A man who rehabilitates and sells antique pianos has his own shingle. And four women who create unique home décor will open their retail store next month in the heart of Tacoma’s Antique Row.
Poppy & Co., which has its grand opening Sept. 14, is a cooperative made up of four artists with their own product line. It all started when Alison Bryan used Spaceworks to see whether her home-based painted furniture business could translate to walk-in retail.
Through a series of coincidences that wouldn’t have happened if Bryan had kept her business at home, she met the three women who now are her business partners in their new location on Broadway, in a retail spot under Winthrop Apartments.
“We couldn’t do it on our own, but as a group we can. That’s what Spaceworks allowed us to find, was that group,” Merri Van Houte, one of Bryan’s partners, said last week. “This was a dream of mine, but I didn’t know how to get there.”
Spaceworks Tacoma began in summer 2010 as an initiative of the City of Tacoma, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber and Seattle arts nonprofit Shunpike. It has an annual budget of $50,000: 40 percent from the city, 25 percent in grants, 25 percent in in-kind donations and 10 percent individual giving.
Here’s how it works: Private property owners volunteer their empty space. The artist pays for utilities and basic maintenance, but no rent on a temporary basis. Spaceworks then matches storefront to artist, who fills it in one of three ways: a static installation, such as paintings or sculpture; a project work-space; or a creative enterprise.
That last category gives artistic entrepreneurs a test kitchen to find out whether they can make a business out of their creative expression.
“We are not only filling the Spaceworks properties, but growing businesses that are starting to populate more empty storefronts downtown,” said Amy McBride, arts administrator for the City of Tacoma, which runs Spaceworks.
Since Spaceworks began two years ago, it has placed more than 80 projects in 20 empty storefronts. Most projects have served more than one artist, said Rebecca Solverson, city public art assistant and Spaceworks coordinator. She estimates about 250 artists and eight property owners have been directly served.
Demand for space is outpacing supply. The program has just three participating properties right now. Some storefronts have gone back on the market, and other spaces didn’t fit the needs of the program.
And sometimes building owners decide vacancy is better than unproven tenants, or they don’t want the hassle of an unorthodox arrangement.
“That happens,” Solverson said. “That’s part of our deal. We say (to property owners), ‘If you want to stop for any reason, that’s fine.’”
She and McBride want property owners to understand the value of participation, especially as they’ve seen an increase recently in the number of applications for creative enterprises — the category most likely to turn into a business.
“We (also) have noticed an increase in the quality of applicants,” Solverson said. “We hope that small startup businesses and organizations will start to see us as a resource.”
Having a space occupied reflects well on the neighborhood. It can be a theft and vandalism deterrent. It could provide an insurance break for some owners, and has the potential to grow a permanent tenant that didn’t exist before.
“We can help businesses transition into lease-paying tenants if property owners are willing to donate space for a while,” McBride said. “We are growing businesses that can then populate other empty storefronts in town.”
One participating building on the Hilltop was empty for more than a year before connecting with Spaceworks. Oliver Doriss, owner of Fulcrum Gallery, made the referral.
“We cleaned it up as much as we could ourselves,” said Jeanette Sorensen, whose family owns a one-story building at 1310 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Spaceworks “would put tenants in, albeit very inexpensively for them, but we felt like it was good to have warm bodies in it. And they have done all the improvements inside,” she said.
Sorensen’s father, Bud Thorp, built the building in 1967 to house Thorp’s Quality Shade Shop. A family trust, The Marie T. Wilson Trust, owns it now and has been trying to sell it for several years. Having tenants makes it a more attractive prospect, and meanwhile lowered the cost to insure it.
The four-bay retail building now has two tenants paying monthly rent thanks to Spaceworks: Fab-5, a nonprofit youth arts organization; and N. Dybevik Piano Co., which shares space with a bike co-op. A third Spaceworks tenant, Cindy Arnold’s Live Paint, will convert to a market lease next month.
Sorensen said the tenants have had a learning curve, too, when it comes to reporting certain maintenance issues. But everyone’s trying really hard.
“I love the artists that have been in. I think that’s been a really good thing,” she said.
McBride said the Thorp building is an example of what Spaceworks is trying to achieve.
“Our goal for the MLK property is to have all lease paying tenants pretty soon and that building will be ‘off the Spaceworks rolls’ so to speak, and the property owners will have a full building of lease paying tenants,” she said. Here’s a look at the three new businesses incubated by Spaceworks Tacoma
POPPY & CO.
Furniture, home decor | 765 Broadway | Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-4 p.m.
A green chair was the first ingredient in the artistic cocktail that is Poppy & Co.
A while ago, Alison Bryan took a rocking chair and removed some pieces, then painted it green. Bryan’s home-based business took off, but the green chair remained. Finally she took it to Goodwill.
That’s where Merri Van Houte found it and bought it and put her own touches on it. She put the chair up for sale in her booth at an antique mall, when Bryan wandered in and spotted it. Their friendship and artistic simpatico led Bryan to invite Van Houte to share a Bryan’s Spaceworks space in downtown’s Triangle District.
Meanwhile, one of Bryan’s first customers there was Crystal Green, who brought in a furniture piece of her own that fit right in with Bryan’s vibe. Green returned with more furniture and a business license.
Finally, Holly Campbell and Van Houte have been friends since junior high. Campbell restores midcentury modern furniture.
“I had no intention of starting my own business,” Campbell said. “Then I met Alison and she said, ‘take this space,’ and I walked in and walked out and said, ‘What just happened? I have to get a business license!’”
The women wanted a different spot for their retail store than the Spaceworks location, so they found a new place on Broadway.
They’re still figuring out their business relationship. Bryan’s first company, The Modern Cottage Co., is on the lease for now, and each woman keeps her own books. They plan to use the next few months to figure out the next steps, including possibly opening a studio at another location.
“We need to learn more,” Van Houte said.
“We’re not rushing in,” Bryan said.
“It’s a pretty fresh partnership to decide to do more than this,” Campbell said.
Van Houte still has the green chair. There’s no way she’ll sell it now.
Nonprofit youth arts organization | 1315 Martin Luther King Jr. Way | Tuesday-Friday, 4 p.m.-10 p.m.
For years, Fab-5 has served hundreds of children across the city, harnessing their energy and giving it a creative outlet: mural painting, dance classes, DJ school.
The nonprofit group has been around for 12 years, but good luck finding its headquarters.
“We’d set up shop in a new part of the city every year,” said Eddie Sumlin, one of Fab-5’s four volunteer directors. “Partly because it was cool to be mobile, and it would give us financial flexibility. It was whoever could accommodate us at a nominal price.”
Moving around meant kids in all parts of Tacoma knew about Fab-5, but there were organizational downsides.
“We have a ton of art supplies and equipment. We’re a big operation. Our summer program has 150 kids and 15 professional teaching artists,” Sumlin said.
Equally important, community supporters who donated the money for programs had a hard time seeing the fruits of their philanthropy.
The Spaceworks program coincided with Fab-5’s moving out from under the umbrella of another nonprofit. It was a chance to see if Fab-5 could stand on its own. The result has exceeded all expectations.
“The energy there now is crazy,” Sumlin said. “We’re connected to all the neighborhoods. We have our own village there.”
N. DYBEVIK PIANO CO.
Antique piano repair and restoration | 1312 Martin Luther King Jr. Way | By appointment only
Sure, Nate Dybevik can tune that upright piano you inherited years ago.
But given enough time and space, he could strip it down, restore or improve each part, and, in the rebuilding, create an instrument far better than what he started with.
“Restoring something is green. You’re not creating a new waste product,” he said. “You can find pianos where the design is much better than modern pianos. You can basically get a brand new piano cheaper this way.”
A new Steinway upright could run about $22,000. A rebuilt piano from Dybevik might be anywhere from $9,000 to $15,000.
He’s played piano since he was a child. He plays in a jazz band now, when he’s not working at a coffee shop to help pay the bills. He started learning to rebuild pianos several years ago, and his mentor recently moved and left him with several pianos.
“I applied to Spaceworks because I wanted to do it more seriously,” he said.
How is it art?
“The pianos that I work with are from the late 1800s to 1900s,” he said. “This is before mass production and standardization.
“Every one is different. You run into these problems and you have to create solutions for them. Missing pieces? Fabricate them. Or, sculpt out of wood a new piece. A flower or art decal might be missing, so you have to carve that and make sure it fits,” he said. “You make this fine instrument where everything is perfect and snug and responsive and you can play Beethoven or jazz.”
SPACEWORKS TACOMA FUNDRAISER
Spaceworks organizers want to sustain and grow the program. Less than half of the budget comes from public money, with the rest a combination of grants and donations. City arts administrator Amy McBride said growing an even more diverse funding stream will ensure the program can continue to thrive. The program is holding its first fundraiser next month to support Spaceworks in 2013.
When: Sept. 15, 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
Where: 311 S. Seventh St., Electric Branch Creative’s Spaceworks location.
Admission is free. Refreshments are provided for all ages, though cocktails will be available for sale. Tickets for the cakewalk start at $5.
More online: spaceworkstacoma.com.