The Center City Commission has agreed to lend its support and its voice to ArtBrew. ArtBrew is a local group that has enlisted the aid of the Minneapolis-based development organization Artspace to convert the old Tennessee Brewery into a multi-purpose arts facility, which will include common and gallery spaces, artist-friendly retail, and low-rent housing for artists.
"I'm almost embarrassed to admit this to you," says Center City Commission president Jeff Sanford, "but until about six months ago, I didn't know what Artspace or ArtBrew was. A member of my staff came up and said they had been approached by a representative of ArtBrew and they were asking for a grant of $1,000 to cover travel expenses. My immediate response was NO! No way. We're just not budgeted for such requests. Our dollars are precious, and you can't just walk in and ask for money for an airplane ticket. Besides, I'm old and cranky."
But ArtBrew was every bit as tenacious as Sanford was cranky, and eventually the CCC did provide $500 to help bring Chris Velasco, Artspace's vice president in charge of consulting and new projects, to Memphis.
Unfortunately, Sanford had a previous engagement and he missed the presentation. What did it matter anyway? Revitalizing the brewery, a historic castle-like building constructed in 1890, had been part of the CCC's strategic redevelopment plan for downtown since 1999. Many developers had presented plans for the brewery. Just as many developers backed out when they realized just how much the renovation would cost, and it was beginning to look like the brewery might never be reclaimed. How likely was it that any group called ArtBrew or Artspace could come up with the estimated $10 million to $15 million it would take to renovate the structure and bring it up to code?
Sanford finally met Velasco when he returned to Memphis in May. Sanford's doubt faded almost instantly, and he quickly became a believer in Artspace, which is dedicated to creating low-income housing for artists and has completed over a dozen major renovations, with seven more in the works. Artspace projects are designed to be self-sustaining, not to generate revenue. They have often been a catalyst for further urban renewal.
"Once I was in possession of the facts," Sanford says, "the opinion was favorable. [Artspace] has proven time and time again, in city after city, on project after project that they aren't just pie-in-the-sky do-gooders. They know what they are doing when it comes to converting long-vacant buildings for new community purposes. And if they take on a project, they agree to find funding for 80 percent of the cost. It's a deal that sounds almost too good to be true."
Because it sounds like such a sweetheart deal, some local developers are skeptical. For that very reason the CCC has agreed to foot the whole bill for bringing Velasco back to Memphis once more to discuss the nuts and bolts of renovating a building the size of the brewery with a group of local businesspersons, including potential investors. Velasco is scheduled to return early in January.
"I want him to meet with representatives of the downtown development community," Sanford says. "It won't be about painting pretty pictures. It's going to be about the cold, hard realities of reviving a beautiful but old and deteriorating building like the brewery."
"A deal isn't a deal 'til it's a deal," Sanford says. "But this is the best chance I've seen for renovating the brewery in my five-and-a-half years at the commission. It's as exciting a project as I can remember."
Should the meeting go well, ArtBrew will have to raise an initial $500,000 to start the project. Then, if at any time a red flag goes up and it appears that the conversion of the brewery is impossible or that it will cost far more than the projected amount, Artspace shuts down the operation and returns all unused funds to the donors.
Sanford won't speculate on the role the CCC will play in the future of ArtBrew and the conversion of the Tennessee Brewery but says it's likely that they will take some kind of financial position through incentives.
The Greater Memphis Arts Council has unveiled its new Web site at MemphisArtsCouncil.org. The easy-to-use site features information about GMAC, arts news, and information about arts advocacy, as well as grants and services, children's programming, and educational opportunities. The site's "arts-finder" provides extensive listings for dance, theater, music, and the visual arts, along with links to related Web sites.