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Artspace organizers, from left, Dayton Rush, Anna Paige and Kim Olsen.

Supporters of Artspace, who asked the Billings City Council for $500,000 to help leverage construction of a $10 million affordable living and working space downtown or in East Billings, said the city can recoup its investment through increased property taxes in a little more than three years.

But the city council declined at the end of a lengthy hearing to approve the request, suggesting that supporters seek tax increment financing instead.

“It’s a catalyst for redevelopment,” supporter Dayton Rush told the council Monday, “and it contributes culturally and financially to the community.”

Artspace is a national nonprofit developer of affordable live-work housing for artists. It has developed more than 46 projects nationwide in 30 years.

A $45,000 feasibility study was completed in 2009. A committee has been working on bringing Artspace to Billings for nearly a decade.

Based in Minneapolis, Artspace would have helped raise about $1.5 million locally and planned to secure another $8 million or so in state and federal grants.

“It’s no secret that art lives here,” said Anna Paige, an educator, poet and bartender and member of the local Artspace committee.

“We’re the people who make this town cool,” said Patrick Scott-Wilson, who together with his husband runs Sacrifice Cliff Theatre Company.

But some council members said they were concerned about the size of the group’s ask.

“Why doesn’t the private sector do it, instead of putting the taxpayer at risk?” asked Councilman Dick Clark.

Councilman Rich McFadden said he was concerned that “the unsubsidized artists we already have will have to compete with subsidized artists.”

Jack Nickels, chair of the Artspace committee, said that artists would benefit if the project is completed because many can’t afford both housing and a studio.

“These people wait tables, check you out at the grocery store or take care of your loved ones in nursing homes,” he said. “This is a way for the community to help a portion of its creative community.”

“Why are you asking for $500,000?” asked Councilman Mike Yakawich. “That’s a huge chunk.”

“This is a specialized group that’s getting this” money, said Councilman Chris Friedel. “What about a struggling entrepreneur?”

Connie Wardell told the council she wonders if low-income tax credits, which the project hopes to tap for the majority of its funding, will even be around three years from now.

But Phillip Griffin, an artist, musician and writer, said that art serves “a practical purpose” in Billings by attracting young, talented people to the community. More are needed, he said.

“Employers say it’s hard to find good young workers who will stick around,” he said. “That may have something to do with the cultural vacuum that has opened up here.”

Nickels told the council that the project will spur additional development. “It will act as a touchstone in and around that property,” he said. “We are asking for an investment, an investment that will return a great deal more to the community.”

Greg Krueger, development director for the Downtown Billings Alliance, said the Artspace committee may want to instead seek tax increment funds rather than general fund dollars.

“They are young and they are energetic, but they don’t have deep pockets," Krueger said, “and neither does the (city’s) general fund.”

By consensus the council declined to take any further action on Artspace’s request.

Afterward, Nickels said the committee will meet to decide on next steps. That could include a pitch for tax increment financing, he said.

“More than likely we will sit down with community leaders and look at how best to put a proposal together for the city council and for Artspace.”


City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.