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Art could boost Toledo’s economy

In a warehouse building in downtown Toledo, guests take in the somber, spiritual and empowering moods of Space 237’s latest exhibit, Intrinsic Beauty.

The gallery is one of many in Toledo created with the intention of sharing art and bringing business back to the area, an effort Mayor Carty Finkbeiner is banking on.

In his year-end State of the City Address, Finkbeiner outlined, among numerous initiatives for city improvement, his plan to attract and relocate artists from across the country to reinvigorate business in Toledo – an idea borrowed from Paducah Arts’ Artist Relocation Program.

Created only seven years ago, the objectives of the relocation program in Paducah, Ky., have proven successful in raising the slumping economy of the city. The plan, a joint effort by city government and private property owners, helps artists purchase houses, apartments and offices through property discounts, tailored loans and affordable repayment plans. The loans often include up to 300 times the estimated value of the property to cover renovation and rebuilding expenses for unused and worn-down spaces, typically situated in lagging areas of Paducah.

To jump-start Toledo’s version of the program, Finkbeiner looked to the city’s own Arts Commission of Greater Toledo to identify incentives and begin recruitment.

The Arts Commission team has worked since 1959 to protect city art as well as bring about and promote the arts in the community. The commission is largely responsible for projects such as Young Artists at Work, sculpture at Fifth Third Field, and the ‘It’s Reigning Frogs’ program that spotted the city landscape with massive, decorated amphibians a few years back.

Executive Director of ACGT, Mark Folk, along with others in the organization, is working on getting word out on the relocation program, called Live Work Create Toledo, and exploring the property purchasing options for vacant areas downtown and surrounding areas.

‘Jobs move to where the creative forces are,’ Folk said. ‘Once you secure [the artists], it’s a proven catalyst for small and midsize business.’

He said the plan looks to include a broad variety of incentives other than housing, including Internet utilization that would promote artist networking and feature Web sites to showcase and sell artists’ works.

For many, problems establishing and retaining business is most severe in downtown Toledo. Ellen Leonard, gallery assistant for Space 237 said she knows the problem all to well.

‘It’s difficult because everyone’s so used to not coming downtown,’ Leonard said. ‘Many people say they never knew we existed.’

Space 237 occupies several floors of a historic building near the corner of Michigan and Jefferson – one in a mixed area of run-down and newly regenerated businesses near the baseball stadium, and among a half dozen other galleries downtown.

Nearby business owners, Pam Burns and Connie Dick immediately decided to incorporate art in their free-trade caf’eacute;, Downtown Latte, when they opened in April 2000 in the newly renovated Warehouse District. Both with backgrounds in the arts – Burns is earning an Art History degree and Dick worked for the Toledo Museum of Art’s Peristyle for over a decade – Burns said it was only natural to continue their support by exhibiting art in their coffee house. She said the opportunity would also be a win-win for both private artists and their business.

‘We introduce artists to the area and the art introduces people to Downtown Latte,’ she said, adding that she believes the Finkbeiner proposal will stimulate business. ‘It’s what we need,’ Burns said.

Mark Folk said the continued interest by Finkbeiner is another facet to solving the city’s ‘brain drain,’ and Live Work Create Toledo helps the city provide a working climate for graduates of the university.

Folk said the program would keep artists like BG alumna Michelle Carlson from leaving after graduation.

Next to teaching undergraduate art courses for BG and Owens Community College, Carlson is programs coordinator for the Arts Commission. She said choosing to live in Toledo over a larger city was in large part due to the affordability of living in the area.

‘As an artist, it’s hard enough to make a living,’ said Carlson, who is looking to Toledo to open her own gallery some time in the future.

Additionally, Carlson said Toledo has a good foundation for art-driven revitalization with the Toledo Museum of Art and the Libbey Glass Company.

‘We’re all hoping this program will be a start,’ she said of Live Work Create Toledo. ‘I feel like it’s about to happen.’

Over the past several years, budgeting pinches have lead the city to cut third-party funding of arts and cultural group spending, leaving ACGT to rely heavily on private donations, fund-raising and government grants.

Last year, in a gesture of support for strengthening arts in the community, Mayor Finkbeiner contributed $20,000 to the Young Artists at Work program.

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