Relocating fire station will uproot a growing arts community
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at 4:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 9:22 a.m.
For about eight years, Chris Fillie has watched the names and paint colors change on South Main Street like leaves changing hues every season.
Before the Repurpose Center, a trash-to-treasure shop, was blue, it was white with crimson doors. Before it was a warehouse, it was an auto-repair shop.
Before a nearby building became the Church of Holy Colors, an experimental art and music venue, it was known as Dacha. But it was born the New Hope Faith Temple.
In 2007, Fillie bought a former grocery store on South Main called George's Meat and Produce. He turned the space into an art gallery and music venue, but altered the name only slightly to George's Meet and Produce. Now, the Civic Media Center occupies the location.
He also bought the storefront next to the CMC. It was called Best Deal Bicycles, but now it is the Citizens Co-op. And as other progressive and artistic places moved into the area, people began to call it the South Main Art District.
This urban renaissance, however, has run into a competing public interest: the need for a new firehouse to replace the station that has helped protect the area for 50 years.
The city is poised to buy about half of the art district for just more than $1 million, a move that would scatter the pieces of the fledgling artists' community just as it is gaining traction.
It's a variation of a problem Fillie said he has seen before, where property values in distressed areas escalate after artists move in and fix them up. Then, the struggling artists are displaced when they are unable to pay the increased rent.
"The fact of the matter is that we don't want to keep fixing up neighborhoods and getting booted out right when we get an area cooking and really awesome like it is right now," Fillie said.
Fillie said he has put a lot of work into cleaning up these spaces. The old bike shop was greasy, and he had to dispose of the many soiled mattresses that covered the floor upstairs.
Buying the storefronts and restoring them was part of a larger goal: to give artists the chance to purchase their own spaces.
Fillie founded Vibrant Community Development Inc. with this idea in mind. The nonprofit group acquires properties and then puts them in a land trust so that the tenants don't get booted out.
Fillie explained that the group uses owner financing so that the owners of the businesses are part of the land trust. He said he usually puts $5,000 to $10,000 of his own money down on the deal, "to let them know I'm serious." The rest is so-called sweat equity, usually construction work.
The Repurpose Project was to be part of this urban land trust. And it might have been — if Fillie had not been two weeks too late in getting the money to purchase the land. The landowner had already taken a larger offer from the city of Gainesville.
The city is proposing to buy roughly 1.5 acres that stretches from South Main Street to Southeast First Street and from Southeast Fifth Avenue to Southeast Sixth Avenue.
The purchase agreement going to the City Commission would pay Peter Theoktisto, the owner of Everyman Sound Company and the land the business stands on, $515,000. David Mathia, who owns the parcel with the Repurpose Project, the Church of Holy Colors and the parking area for other tenants in the arts district, would receive $530,000.
The new fire station would displace the Repurpose Project, the Church of Holy Colors and the Everyman Sound Company. It also would take away about 30 parking spaces from the neighboring businesses.
While this artist haven was taking form, Fire Chief Gene Prince has been working on getting a new fire station. Because money had to be secured and plans approved by the City Commission, it has been about six years since he began the project.
Prince said that because of Innovation Square, the University Corners project and all of the other construction going on in Gainesville, a bigger fire station is needed.
"We're not just looking at what we need today, but what we're going to need for the future," he said.
The current station in the 400 block of South Main is about a foot away from the CMC and about 50 years old. The new station is planned to be on the lot on the south side of the CMC.
"We plan on being a good neighbor as we have been for the past 50 years," Prince said.
The contracts for the purchase of the land have not been approved yet. Prince said the fire department probably will take the contracts to the commission for approval at the last meeting in March.
Prince said it is too early to say what will happen to the current station if and when a new one is built. He said the firefighters are likely to be in the old station for at least two more years.
Fillie said he is looking at the situation as brightly as he can. He said he's glad the city is buying the land instead of a private seller who might have developed it into something else. He said the city is helping the businesses to figure out new parking arrangements.
The owners of the Repurpose Project, Sarah Goff and Mike Myers, say that like the fire station, they need more room. As they have collected more unwanted desk chairs and lighting fixtures, the items have begun to spill out onto the lawn of their 3,000-square-foot building.
They had planned to be at the location for at least the five years they had leased the place. But after about a year, they are looking for a new home with the help of the city.
In this way, the building of the new fire station is a blessing in disguise, Myers said.
Destruction might just be a form of creation for the Repurpose Project and Myers — a self-taught artist who has been in the deconstruction business since he moved to Gainesville in 1975.
"I think you can find a place for just about anything," he said.
His partner Goff, 35, has been repurposing items for most of her life, too.
"I grew up on an island, and it was hard to get things," she said. "So I made things out of trash."
Although the Repurpose Project no longer will be in the baby-blue building in the South Main Arts District after the next two years, it's not going to stop Myers and Goff from continuing their artistic recycling.
Myers said he plans to continue changing unwanted things into new pieces of art with his friend Goff for the rest of his life. "This is my niche in life — a way I can pass on to future generations," he said.
Evan Galbicka, 26-year-old co-founder of the Church of Holy Colors, said he doesn't think the new fire station will be a problem as long as the city provides parking.
"Forces of change should not be resisted but allowed to pass through," he said.
Galbicka has been with the Church of Holy Colors since it was called Dacha.
"I think this area is a hub for people interested in progressive thought and doing something to activate their artistic mind," he said.
As for the church, he said he'll be sad to see it go and hopes the city allows him to salvage the building materials. He said he plans on using the building materials to help fix up Elestial Sound Headquarters on Southeast Fourth Street, a new experimental music and art venue.
"Our audience will follow us wherever we go," he said. "We're only moving a couple blocks away."