OLYMPIA - If Olympia City Council members want to lure Artspace to build an artist housing project downtown, they might have to spend $750,000 for the right to make a pitch.
Last week, the council considered whether to take the second step in a six-step process, spending $42,000 for a market survey to gauge the demand for a live-work project in Olympia. The council made no decision and moved discussion of the issue to next year’s council retreat, which is scheduled for Jan. 15-16.
It is unclear whether next year’s council, which will include three new members, will pursue such an expensive project in challenging economic times. The city is expected to cut $4 million from next year’s budget and lay off more than a dozen employees.
Councilman Jeff Kingsbury said in an interview that Artspace could make up its mind about whether to build a multimillion-dollar development based on the market study commissioned by the council.
“If the city spends $42,000, and the market study comes back favorable, they’re building a building here,” he said. The remainder of the approximately $750,000 cost could be paid partly with outside funding, including some from Artspace.
Artspace is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that develops buildings that include studios and living space for artists, along with retail space. The group builds a handful of projects each year in a highly competitive process. Attracting an Artspace project was one of the City Council’s top 10 goals agreed to during last January’s retreat.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, the organization outlined a six-step process it requires before it selects a city for a project. In each case, the work is done by Artspace, but the cost is the city’s responsibility.
Artspace could contribute some money, said Cathryn Vandenbrink, regional director for Artspace in Seattle; its past contributions to projects in other cities have varied.
Kingsbury said Olympia was one of two cities nationwide to clear the first of the six hurdles – a site visit, which happened here when Artspace representatives visited for two days in September.
At the city’s invitation, the organization met with artists, elected leaders and the public. The city held a forum with Artspace at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts that drew more than 300 people, an attendance record for such an event, said Stephanie Johnson, the arts and events coordinator for the city. The city paid the $12,000 cost for the visit with a grant from the National Association of the Arts and $10,000 from council goal funds.
Vandenbrink said the visit made a good impression on her but added that the organization doesn’t rely on first impressions.
“We feel strongly that there is certainly a big artist market here,” she said.
Artspace representatives visit a new city each week, but it builds only two projects a year, Vandenbrink said.
“We only go where we’re invited,” she said. “We don’t go looking for properties. We don’t go into communities and say, ‘This is what you need.’ What we do is we wait to see to get an invitation.”
If the city clears all the hurdles, Artspace and government tax credits will pay for the project. Artspace would own it.
There could be another giveaway to Artspace: the land itself. Vandenbrink said cities give the land to Artspace for most of its projects.
The city hasn’t chosen a site for an Artspace project, but it is considering the old Department of Transportation property on State Avenue, across from the Olympia Transit Center.
Proponents say the housing would be a boon to downtown, which has seen little in the way of housing development in the past 30 years.
“Housing in our downtown has been a goal of our comprehensive plan for years,” said Steve Friddle, community services manager for the city.
He said the city tried to lure Artspace to town in 2003 and 2004, when the city was attempting to develop a site on Columbia Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues. But the city’s process didn’t fit Artspace’s process, he said.
Instead, the city sold the space to Colpitts of Seattle for a seven-story, 123-apartment complex. Construction has yet to get under way because of financing problems.
Matt Batcheldor: 360-704-6869