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Crestwood ArtSpace tenants soon to be nomads

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 2, 2011 - In its early days, Avalon Theatre got by with a small, technologically limited space at Union United Methodist Church, stashing its props, sets and costumes in basements and garages. Now, the company produces state-of-the art shows, runs an office, and stores all its stuff in a more sophisticated, 5,000-square-foot facility inside Crestwood Court's ArtSpace.

But next year, the curtain will go down on this ideal location. That's when mall owners Centrum Properties of Chicago will begin redevelopment.

For nearly three years, 60 arts tenants, including theater companies, dance organizations and jewelry makers, have called Crestwood Court their home. The creation of ArtSpace breathed life into the mall's empty wings and gave artists a chance to set up shop for as little as $50 a month for a small space or $100 for a large area. The arrangement was expected to last 18 months to two years, and tenants are grateful for the extra time.

In 2012, when the current relationship ends, the artists will have to make tough decisions.

Centrum told the Beacon they'll give tenants a firm move-out date by the end of the year. Regional Arts Commission Deputy Director Dan Tierney expects the deadline will be about six months from now. Knowing that the variable is when, not if, Avalon's producing artistic director Larry Mabrey is moving forward.

"We're going ahead with plans to be out of there in the spring," Mabrey said.

The Show Must Go on ... but Where?

The new incarnation of Crestwood Court won't be a traditional shopping mall, according to Rebecca Hawkinson of Centrum's development team.

"Our plan is to have some sort of entertainment-based redevelopment," Hawkinson said.

Hawkinson would only name movie theaters as an example of new entertainment options slotted for the development. Centrum also hopes to include some ArtSpace tenants in its project. Still, the new opportunity for the artists would mean a big rent hike up to market value -- thousands of dollars a month, not hundreds as they're paying now.

Several tenants could share a space and the monthly rent, Tierney said. Even so, the amount would probably still be more than they're paying now -- and the question remains about where to go in the interim.

"Right now I'm telling the arts groups to plan for the next step between the closure of the current mall and the redevelopment," Tierney said.

But only a few are willing to relocate and then move back in again, Tierney said. Avalon isn't completely ruling out a double move for the right deal.

"It's possible," Mabrey said.

For now, the six-year-old Avalon Theatre has no scheduled ArtSpace performances beyond its Dec. 3-4 weekend productions of "Portrait of My People." After that, the play about growing up in a multi-racial native American family will travel to schools, museums and other locations for private performances.

Avalon has another play in mind for spring, but is waiting to see what the future holds before announcing it.

"I can't commit to telling people we're going to produce shows if we're not set in our own lives," Mabrey said.

Some May Plug into Circuit City

For Avalon theater company and several other tenants, ArtSpace has served as a kind of arts organizations incubator with excellent results.

"We've just had our most successful season in terms of fundraising, audience numbers and ticket sales," Mabrey said. "We've retired all our debt and we have money in the bank."

Jeff Lefton, who's enjoyed several prosperous years with his Abra-Kid-Abra magic camp, class and party venue at ArtSpace, wants to expand in a new location. He can afford to pay $1,000 to $1,500 a month for a larger space to accommodate his field-trip and birthday-party customers.

"I'd like to have inflatables in one room that the kids can bounce on and cake in another room," Lefton said.

Another option for ArtSpace tenants is to move into one of several available industrial and storefront locations along Watson Road. Some are casually considering the former Circuit City building, including Lefton.

"There is a group of us looking at a few different buildings. We all viewed Circuit City; and the realtor was there and we talked to him a little bit," Lefton said.

Lefton is considering moving to a more affluent area. But Holly Smith of To the Pointe dance studio wants to stay in Crestwood. After her successful run at ArtSpace, Smith also needs a bigger location for the additional classes she'd like to add.

Avalon also wants to stay in Crestwood. But soundproofing, lighting and other issues rule out Circuit City and other large, shared spaces.

Chesterfield's Artropolis may be another option for Crestwood nomads; Chesterfield Mall plans to keep its arts tenants indefinitely. While Artropolis is "full right now," according to regional marketing director Sean Phillips, Tierney is looking at possible arrangements in which some ArtSpace tenants could share space with existing Artropolis artists.

About 20 of the 60 Crestwood tenants are meeting once a month with Tierney to figure out their futures. Meanwhile, Mabrey isn't terribly worried about where Avalon will end up.

"We're optimistic," Mabrey said. "I feel hopeful we'll be able to get space and do a show in the spring."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.