A new vision for old buildings
Developer, artists' group turn empty industrial space into studios
July 22, 2008
The Hamilton Spectator
If creativity can transform a city, a partnership between a developer and a non-profit arts group is quietly sparking the change.
The Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts and Spiro Daniolos, owner of Dalton Developments, have just launched their second project.
Their first, Paper Box Studios at Cumberland and Gage avenues, is a beehive of artistic activity after officially opening in May.
Tenants include photographers, painters and a recording studio. It took no time at all to fill the 10,000 square feet of studio space in the former Tressider Brothers Paper Box Company built in 1926.
Over the years, it had been a shoe and boot plant and a snowboard factory.
When Daniolos, 36, bought the building in 2005, it was home to a carpet warehouse and one apartment but most of the space was empty. But he saw great potential in the high ceilings, open spaces, brick walls, large windows and hardwood floors. He had only worked in residential renovations, mostly insurance work.
He initially thought of converting the building into lofts but happened to meet Jeremy Freiburger, founder and director of the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts.
Freiburger, 32, had helped transform part of an old cotton factory on Sherman North into funky but affordable arts studios.
So Daniolos invited Freiburger over to Cumberland Avenue. That was early in 2007 and a partnership was born.
Daniolos buys the properties and fixes them up. The ICCA gets commissions when Freiburger finds tenants for the studios.
Freiburger admits the search isn't hard. "(The artists) really find us. There is a real demand for space like this and the arts community in Hamilton is really tightly knit."
The area of the former cotton mill at 270 Sherman Ave. N. that the ICCA is responsible for has a waiting list of 35 or 40 people, he said.
Many economists, most notably urban guru Richard Florida, now at the University of Toronto, argue that the so-called creative class are forming the backbone of modern economies and are the centrepiece of prosperous cities.
No one needs to convince Daniolos. He began construction at Paper Box Studios last fall.
He had to build walls to divide up the space, install new plumbing and electrical systems and replace "thousands of broken windows."
Most tenants are making the leap to studio space outside their homes for the first time, Freiburger said. But some have packed up and moved from Toronto to find more affordable space.
Photographer Alisha Townsend of Fresh Studios has a sleek, bright first-floor studio with exposed brick, beams and posts that she has painted white and decorated with chandeliers and cascading fabric.
Upstairs, Vibewrangler Studio has kept the natural brick and created a cosy, brooding atmosphere for recording music in a huge third-floor studio with soaring 16-foot ceilings.
"This is ideal space for us," said Mike Keire, who owns Vibewrangler with partner Greg Marshall. "The size and finding this much brick and hardwood is a dream for what we do."
The dust had barely settled on their first project when Daniolos bought another property farther east on Cumberland. Renovations have begun on the former National Paper Goods building that dates back to 1914.
There are seven units in that building and only one is still available. They expect it will be finished in early fall. Tenants include a management company for Christian bands, a musician-writer and a company that makes acoustic panels for recording studios and home theatres.
"I feel a lot more proud sharing my buildings as an artists building, rather than just another condo," Daniolos said.
He and Freiburger, both Hamilton natives, are constantly scoping out properties, setting their sights on finding a 100,000-square-foot vacant or underused industrial site that can be converted into an arts hub.
"We're putting a real focus on incubator space and how we can help nurture success," Freiburger said.
That could mean setting up mentorships, offering advice on running a business and creating a collective to buy supplies and services at a discount.
ICCA is using a $30,000 grant from the Hamilton Community Foundation to help the City of Hamilton study successful models for building a thriving arts sector.
Freiburger is proof it can work. At 26 and with no financing or credit, the filmmaker and theatre artist negotiated a five-year-lease for space at the former Imperial Cotton Centre.
He found tenants and rented the space to them for the same rate he was paying. "I figured I had nothing to offer, so I shouldn't gain, either. I really wanted to prove the model worked."
Now, he's thinking of developing studio space for artists working with iron, stone and gas kilns. The noise, dust and gases they produce often don't blend well with other types of artists.
He and Daniolos would like to take advantage of some of the city's downtown renewal or brownfield grant programs.
They have their eyes on the waterfront and they're thinking of doing some live/work spaces downtown, too.
Both think there should be a tax penalty for letting space sit vacant, rather than tax relief.
"I stop at King and James and look up to those beautiful buildings with tin ceilings and huge windows that are just sitting empty," Daniolos said.
"What we could do with them ..."