Occupy Artspace: Downtown Elgin creative colony welcoming tenants
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org October 23, 2012 10:20PM
Elgin ArtSpace Lofts, a $14.5 million artists colony in downtown Elgin, is located at the corner of Spring and Dupage Streets. The new lofts offer affordable living for artists and their families. October 22, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 25, 2012 11:26AM
ELGIN — A few weeks ago, Dominique Hadley and her two young children packed up their belongings at their Hill Avenue residence on the northeast side and headed to new brand new digs downtown.
From her new place, Hadley hopes to build a visual arts business while raising her family. In turn, the city hopes that Hadley and those who wind up in the other 54 units in the renovated building will help to revitalize what, a long time ago, was the city’s vibrant central business district.
With little fanfare, artists have started to occupy the long-in-the-works Elgin Artspace Lofts (EAL) at 51 S. Spring St.
According to Kimberly Moore, asset manager for Minneapolis-based Artspace, as of last week, 12 artists already had moved into the building, which used to be the Fountain Square campus of Elgin Community College. More are set to arrive by the end of the month.
The $14.5 million effort to convert the century-old Sears and Roebuck store into a creative colony, plus a new three-story structure next door, had been in the works since 2007. Construction started in autumn 2011 and wound up ahead of schedule. In addition to housing, the old Sears building will hold 5,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor along with community space, including a gallery, for use by the project’s residents.
Still, “We generally do not host a grand opening event until after the artists have moved in and gotten settled (sometime in April 2013),” Moore stated in an email. “We will be participating in (this Saturday’s) Nightmare on Chicago Street by allowing makeup artists to prepare their makeup in the commercial space. We will also have one of the artists in the building painting the leasing office windows for the Halloween event.”
Artspace Projects Inc. is a nonprofit developer of arts facilities. Over the last two decades, Artspace has completed more than 30 major projects around the country, including one in Chicago, and it has another under way in Waukegan.
To live in one of its sites, applicants go through a qualification process based on U.S. Housing and Urban Development rules. Once they are deemed qualified, they are put in a pool for selection.
To qualify for a unit, an artist’s annual income must be at 60 percent or less of the Chicago area median income, which means $30,060 a year for a single person and $45,060 or less for a family of four. Rents will range from $329 for a studio to $1,027 for a three-bedroom place and are adjusted based on income.
As for who is moving into the Elgin project, Artspace Vice President of Communications Melodie Bahan stated in an email, “Unfortunately we don’t have demographic info compiled yet. We’re still in the process of receiving and reviewing applicants. I haven’t seen the numbers (as of last Friday), but I think we’ve received between 40 and 50 applications.”
For her part, Hadley said she found out about Artspace online at Craigslist and applied to live there in June. She was interviewed for about a half-hour Sept. 21 by a panel that included three artists, a representative of Artspace, and Jason Pawlowski of the Downtown Neighborhood Association.
Tim Solarz, owner of Spacetaste Gallery downtown, is among those who have served on such panels, which are made up of screened volunteers and which rotate members. Solarz said he has been part of interviews for 12 candidates thus far, with more planned.
Elgin Cultural Arts Commission city staff liaison Sylvia Grady said last week that 36 interviews had been conducted so far for the 55 spots.
The sessions involved asking questions about the respective artist’s work and about what he or she would contribute to the community, and were provided not by each member but by Artspace, Solarz said. Panel members don’t confer but individually rate each candidate on a scale of 1 to 5, with those ratings turned in to the Artspace coordinator.
Elk Grove Village trumpeter, music teacher and trumpet salesman Steve Sowinski, who has been part of four artist interviews, said, “It’s great that the artists will be going out into and affecting the community and not just having people come to Artspace. That’s how changes can happen.”
From the nine interviews to which she’s contributed, Elgin-based choreographer and dance teacher Sara Krikau said, “It’s exciting. There’s a positive vibe happening already.”
As for Hadley’s background, she was born in New Jersey, and her parents now live in South Elgin. She has an online bachelor’s degree in visual communication from American InterContinental University. She had been working as a salesperson at the AT&T store in West Dundee but lost her job about a year ago. Currently, Hadley is collecting unemployment and making ends meet with freelance photography projects and savings. She said she is not receiving any other public aid to afford living in her three-bedroom dwelling, where her rent is $850 per month.
Hadley hopes to expand her illustrative artwork while living downtown by finding book and mural projects. She also intends to be involved in teaching her art to children.
“Wherever I live, I become an active member of the community,” Hadley said.
While of modest means, Hadley does see herself and her family supporting the downtown economy. She has friends who like to drink coffee at Ravenheart, she treats her kids to ice cream at Al’s Cafe, and already is a regular at Toom Toom Thai Restaurant.
“What I love about living here so far is I come home to a peaceful place where I can create,” she said. “And my walls literally are a blank canvas I am allowed to fill. I also like that I will be surrounded by other artists.”