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City opens process for using $12M approved to preserve creative spaces

Thursday, August 27, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has launched the process of finding properties and organizations that could be matched in the next 12 months for public-private partnerships focused on preserving creative spaces around the city.

The newly released request for information is the first step in finding potential spaces for the city to purchase using $12 million in bond funding approved by voters in 2018. That money was specified for creative space creation and preservation to address the problem of arts spaces, music venues and related properties closing in recent years due to growing land costs and redevelopment pressures.

The RFI will remain open until Sept. 21 and is intended to give the city and associated consultants a full picture of the spaces and potential operators that could be paired off to keep spaces open and prospering as the city continues to grow. A subsequent request for qualifications or proposals will narrow down the process, with the city focused on areas and groups that have experienced higher rates of closure or historical lack of access to creative spaces.

Last year, a working group made up members of the city’s arts and music commissions recommended that the funds be concentrated in East Austin and southern sections of the city, and that existing spaces be given priority rather than using the bond money to fund new construction.

“There’s not enough money for (new construction) and so we need to be as flexible as possible to see what things are out there with this RFI, to see if we can make the parts fit,” said Erica Shamaly, director of the city’s Music and Entertainment division. “Any construction done with $12 million would just be the tip of the iceberg and wouldn’t be able to do very much for us. This is the opportunity for us to find out what places are out there and what operators are out there so we can bring all those parts together.”

State regulations and existing law concerning bond funds suggest that the city will need to own or have a significant stake in the properties involved, in part to add stability to the deals involving taxpayer dollars.

Shamaly and other city staffers within the Economic Development Department have reached out to owners and managers of properties identified as creative spaces in previous studies, but Christine Maguire, director of redevelopment services, said responding to the RFI starts the formal process to be considered for a possible contract.

“What we’re doing is setting up a formal procurement within the laws, rules and regulations of how cities acquire property,” she said. “This RFI gives us early word of who could be involved and we are giving that to a broker who will be reviewing and issuing the RFP and formal process. Even though someone might have talked to city staff verbally, what we’re trying to do with this RFI is let everyone know the formal procurement is the process to curate their ideas.”

With City Council moving toward the creation of an economic development corporation that is expected to include a cultural trust component, Council members have speculated recently about how the EDC could be used to leverage the $12 million into other deals and funding sources to make it go further.

Maguire said that with the EDC process still in its formative stages, it is unclear if there will be time to fold some of the bond money into its deal-making while meeting the goal of deploying the bond money within the next year.

“We only have $12 million. If there’s a way to use some kind of entity to scale that and have broader impact that is obviously something that even the joint arts and music commission hopes to see,” she said. “This $12 million needs to fulfill the contract with the voters to create long-term affordable creative space, but everyone realizes that wasn’t enough. This is all hard because right now it’s all just conversations with Council and nothing is down on paper.”

Photo of the Hideout Theater made available through a Creative Commons license.

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