Envisioning the North Trail as a hotspot for artists
Veronica Morgan — mixed media artist, historic preservationist, designer, planner, snowbird and petite, white-haired dynamo — can already envision it: a repurposed historic North Trail building humming with artists at work, innovative businesses and a creative vibe that's contagious to anyone who enters the neighborhood.
"The North Trail is the front door to Sarasota from the airport," said Morgan, who splits her year between Sarasota and Gloucester, Massachusetts. "Right now, it's not a very nice front door, but it could be. It's always struck me that it's an exciting artistic corridor waiting to be born, if somebody could just foster a means of sparking the revitalization."
Since nobody else was striking the match, over the past year Morgan raised $15,000 to bring two consultants from the Minneapolis-based Artspace to Sarasota last week to gauge enthusiasm and support for creating an affordable live/work space for artists and arts organizations along the North Trail.
Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer founded in 1979 and based in Minneapolis, currently operates 35 such facilities in 14 cities around the country.
Morgan, who lived full time in Sarasota from 1982 to 1993 and renovated several historic homes here, convinced the City Commission to contribute $5,000 in kickoff funds several months ago. The Sarasota Alliance for Historical Preservation added another $5,000 if the focus was on the North Trail corridor, and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County supplied the remainder.
"It seemed to be a no-brainer for Sarasota," Morgan says. "There are so many artists here. And there is zero housing."
Consultants Wendy Holmes and Stacey Mickelson spent two days in Sarasota last week touring North Trail neighborhoods, meeting with focus groups and answering questions at a public forum held at the University of South Florida-Sarasota Manatee.
"We're here to explore if it could happen here and if all the right support systems are in place to make it possible," said Holmes. "Rarely are the properties we look at first the ones we eventually develop, but we saw a lot of possibilities."
However, Holmes cautioned that without the will, support and involvement of the community — everyone from local artists, to financial institutions, government officials and political leaders — "it's not going to happen."
Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts Alliance of Sarasota County, which is serving as sponsor for the effort, said the feasibility study was "a great first step, but just a step."
"We're looking at a potential opportunity that could spur tremendous and exciting growth for our arts community," he said.
Holmes said she and Mickelson would be putting together a "SWOT" evaluation, listing the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing such a project here. The next step would be an online market survey to assess demand, followed by a pre-development plan, which is when specific sites would be considered.
The final step — assembling financing, which is typically 80 percent from public sources such as the housing authority and 20 percent from private donations and loans — can often be the lengthiest and most onerous stage, she said.
The average time to completion for an Artspace project is from three to five years. Some, however, go much longer. A project in New York City is going on its 12th year and another in Tallahassee is indefinitely on hold; Fort Lauderdale is currently home to the only Artspace facility in Florida.
"It's not a fast thing," Holmes said. "You have to cobble together the money to make it happen and there has to be leadership and political will."
However, Mickelson added, "if we decide to get married to the city of Sarasota, you will see us here forever." With local management assistance, Artspace continues to operate its facilities in perpetuity.
The average Artspace project is 40-70 units and includes live/work residences for artists, shared common spaces and creative commercial businesses, including restaurants that can double as galleries. All projects are created with "green" energy standards and sustainability in mind.
Holmes said the choice between restoration or new construction — each of which Artspace has done elsewhere — would not be made for some time here.
"If we can get the political support for one over the other, that's the way we'd go," she said. "The bottom line is not the most important thing for us, and that's what makes us different from traditional developers. Like the artists we help, we are pioneers."
Mickelson said opportunities along the North Trail corridor would be exhausted before any other areas might be considered.
"We're not looking to move into a neighborhood that's up and coming," he said, "we are looking to create the next up and coming neighborhood. And we all know what happens when artists move into a neighborhood — others follow because it's cool and fun and exciting."
Artist Catherine Lignier, who attended the public forum with a friend, said she would have no qualms about living on the North Trail, despite its unsavory reputation.
"Bringing some creative people in could completely change the vibe," she said. "It might actually bring a very positive outcome in the area."
Lignier, 42, who shares a house with others, says live/work space for artists is badly needed here. Finding a place to do her guilding work has often been a challenge.
"I don't have my own space and sometimes other people get upset," she said. "It's something that's absolutely needed. I just wish we didn't have to wait so long for it."
WHAT: Artspace, a nonprofit real estate developer that operates 35 facilities in 14 cities, is conducting a feasibility study to assess the potential and enthusiasm for creating a mixed-use live/work and creative commercial space for artists in Sarasota.
WHERE: Target study area is the historic North Trail corridor. Past Artspace projects include historic preservation/restoration, new construction, or a combination of the two.
WHEN: The average time, from conception to completion, is three to five years.
HOW MUCH: Typically, 80 percent of financing comes from public resources, such as housing development funds; 20 percent comes from mortgages and/or private sources. Housing and Urban Development sets rental rates based on 40% of median income for the county; artists must income qualify.
WHO: Open to "committed" artists with a body of work from all genres, poets to quilters
WHY: To provide affordable live/work artist housing, revitalize a neighborhood and create an artistic synergy.
WHAT IS NEEDED: Grassroots, political and financial involvement, support and advocacy.
To learn more, go to www.artspace.org.