Spaceworks Partnership Helps Tacoma Artists Meet Financial Challenges

By Rosemary Ponnekanti The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.).

Thirty-nine new businesses leasing their own space. More than 100 art installations in eight downtown spaces. Ten murals. A $150,000 budget.

In five years, the City of Tacoma's Spaceworks program has come a long way from just matching up artists with empty buildings.

In partnership with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, it gives artists temporary studio space and organizes business training and a rent-free incubation period for start-ups.

As it celebrates its fifth anniversary, Spaceworks can take the credit for a lot of Tacoma's business and vibrancy in downtown and beyond.

But the partnership still has challenges to its long-term viability: finding more affordable space and more money. And at least one gallery owner sees some downsides.

For Amy McBride, the city of Tacoma's arts administrator, the program is a success.

"It has exceeded my wildest fantasy for what I thought possible," said McBride, who thought up the program five years ago.

"It started as just putting art in empty spaces and has become one of the more robust business training programs we have," said McBride, co-chair of the Spaceworks steering committee.

"It helps businesses become more sustainable, and transforms the community because businesses stay in place and thrive." Robert Boyle, a co-founder of a downtown skate shop, credits Spaceworks with helping reduce the sizable risk that comes with opening a retail business.

Building owners who participate in the program don't charge rent for the first six months.

"That allowed us to invest all of our profit back into inventory," said Boyle of Grit City Grindhouse. "That's really important for a retail skate shop."

But not everyone likes the influence Spaceworks has had on Tacoma's arts.

"They're so successful," said artist and private gallerist Oliver Doriss, who said his business has been affected by arts-goers who assume he's funded by Spaceworks and doesn't need to sell art.

"They've co-opted the entire arts scene of Tacoma. ... You get to thinking, do you beat them or join them?"

AN UNUSUAL PARTNERSHIP Spaceworks began as McBride's idea to liven up vacant storefronts with art, but it has turned into an unusual government-business partnership considered by most to be a win-win for everyone.

Initially, the city provided money and the County Chamber found appropriate vacant properties and landlords. A third partner, arts nonprofit Shunpike, covered insurance and leasing.

Embryo businesses got a little training and six months essentially rent-free to pursue their plans.

The total cash budget was $51,300.

At the end of 2012, Shunpike's contract ran out at the same time as the city's budget to pay it. Shunpike took the Tacoma model to Seattle and began the successful Storefronts art program.

Spaceworks' future looked shaky.

"We were holding it together with spit and gum," McBride recalled.

Then, in 2013, the program got some funding from a Community Development Block Grant: federal money allocated by the city to encourage economic development. The chamber took more of a role, granting office space and paying staff members.

"That was the turning point," said Spaceworks' current manager, Heather Joy, who came on board at that point. "It helped to stabilize the program."

By the 2013-14 financial year, the federal grant had risen to more than $77,000, and income from the city's arts funding, the National Endowment for the Arts and various foundations had increased.

Now, Spaceworks has a $145,000 income, aiming for $150,000 in 2015-16. This includes a just-announced $5,000 Innovative Grant from the city, $9,000 from its general fund and $93,000 from the federal grant.

Of that budget, two-thirds goes to staff salaries (one full-time and one part-time employee, plus a paid summer intern) and about a third to artist stipends and the creative enterprise program.

But financial challenges remain.

Spaceworks doesn't run on government money alone, and is trying to ramp up the foundation and corporate dollars to stabilize the program in the future.

"We have to fundraise to keep doing what we're doing," Joy said.

INCUBATING BUSINESSES When McBride got the idea for a way to bring vibrancy to vacant space, she was mostly thinking of art.

Now Spaceworks is as much about business as it is about art, partly thanks to a gradual development of the business training it offers.

Catering to creative types who might not have any business knowledge, the program teaches marketing, financial management, how to make a business plan, licensing and insurance.

It ends with participants giving a presentation to a panel of experts for feedback.

Alison Bryan was an early recipient of a Spaceworks grant. For years she ran her furniture business, The Modern Cottage Company, out of her garage and never considered a storefront.

A Spaceworks grant allowed her to learn about merchandizing and other aspects of retailing. Four years later, she puts those lessons to use in her second storefront on North 30th Street, where she pays market-rate rent.

"I figured out I was really good at it," she said. "If I hadn't gotten (Spaceworks) space, I wouldn't have a store now." Spaceworks "was the catalyst that got me where I am now," she said.

The program's results are small businesses that might not bring in enormous profits, but that seem to thrive in hard-to-rent spaces and bring people into Tacoma through unique products.

Joy cites Tinkertopia as a good example. The 2012 alum-turned-profitable Pacific Avenue store sells recycled items as art supplies, offering art studio time, birthday parties and the like.

Other success stories are SPUN Clay Arts Studio, which runs clay art classes, and Grit City Grindhouse, which sells skate gear and supports local deck designers and nonprofit and fellow alum Alchemy Skateboarding.

In the past year, the program has expanded beyond downtown with Blue Octopus paint studio near Ruston and the Arts and Crafts Press on South Tacoma Way.

The program succeeds, McBride said, because unlike traditional business training programs, it connects both arts and business.

"We think, 'How does creativity enter into the mind of a business person, or how do creative people get business training?'" she said.

By using space for creative enterprise, Joy points out, the program "generates new jobs and businesses" -- something recognized by the federal funding.

Rane Shaub, who manages the Bowe's Building at South Ninth and A streets, said Spaceworks provided a tenant when there was no other to be found. Shaub and the tenant are negotiating a regular lease.

"There's so much vacant space around Tacoma," he said. "We resorted to this because we didn't have a better option. So far it looks like a great deal because it gave a business a start, and we might end up with a lease."

Not every Spaceworks project works, of course.

Many early participants haven't gone on to lease space, with 19 of the 58 alumni operating either noncommercially or simply stopping business.

Joy attributes this to the fledgling stages of the program.

"Incorporating more business training in 2013 really helped, rather than just handing them the key and saying, 'Go for it,'" she said.

"The experience was wonderful," said Cindy Arnold, a theater artist who operated her children's art-theater experience, Live Paint, at a Martin Luther King Jr. Way space in 2011 before moving out to perform out of town.

"It really helped me get a feel for how a brick-and-mortar operation works," she said. "It also gave me insight on how to build community and work with volunteers. ... I would do it again."

Letterpress artist Jessica Spring was especially happy with her space.

"When I had the opportunity to exhibit at the old post office, it completely informed my work," she said.

"The funky display cases and vintage environment made for an installation -- a miniature museum -- that just wouldn't have happened in a gallery setting."

MAKING SPACE FOR ART Another pillar of Spaceworks is art, and in five years the program has seen plenty of it, mostly downtown.

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