Veronica Morgan is working on a project she believes would enhance Sarasota’s status as an arts community, help revitalize the North Trail and retain more of the area’s college population. All she needs is $15,000.
Morgan is trying to raise funds to bring consultants from Artspace, a Minneapolis-based company that develops affordable live/work space for artists, to Sarasota. If they are hired, Artspace employees will study the city for two days before formulating a plan for the development of artist housing communities in the area — or spearheading such a project themselves.
An artist herself, Morgan believes the city is in desperate need of that type of housing. As the city has increasingly embraced its cultural reputation, she said, there has not been a corresponding effort to make it easier for artists to live in the city.
“Sarasota is becoming more and more popular, and the price of housing has escalated,” Morgan said. “When you think of the size of our performing-arts community — dance, theater, opera, as well as all of the visual arts — that adds up in a hurry.”
Morgan, who has a background in architecture and real estate, thinks the North Trail is a perfect fit for a project of that nature. She said the area is teeming with potential for more activity, and would serve as a connector for the region’s various cultural institutions. If a significant project is developed, she said, the North Trail could see a meaningful economic boost, even attracting artists from beyond Sarasota.
Currently, the only Artspace project in the state is the 37-unit Sailboat Bend loft complex in Fort Lauderdale.
“The market could very well be all of Florida,” Morgan said. “It could be a much wider market than just Sarasota County.”
She’s received support from the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership, a nonprofit group that aims to work for the redevelopment of the area. David Morriss, vice chairman of the NTRP, said it was essential to get positive projects underway to create momentum for other positive developments. Artist housing is a fit, he said, particularly because the North Trail is well suited to be rebranded as a space for the city’s creative types.
“It’s a question of, do you play to the trail’s strengths, or do you play to its weaknesses?” Morriss said. “This is playing to its strengths.”
He also agreed with Morgan’s claims that the city was falling short when it came to providing living spaces for its artists. He thinks the city could bolster its status as a cultural hotspot by helping to fill in gaps in affordable live/work space.
“I think it’s one of those situations where you put your money where your mouth is,” Morriss said. “We talk about being an arts community, but there’s no synergistic housing for artists in town.”
Tim Jaeger, a 2002 graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design, also agrees the housing stock is lacking in Sarasota. Jaeger, who founded the arts collective sARTq and the online publication Sarasota Visual Art, said one of the most frequent questions he gets is where to find live/work space. The answer, he said, is that it’s either not available or not feasible for an artist to rent.
“Every day that passes, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for newcomers to our community and existing artists to find affordable live/work space,” Jaeger said. “Part of it is because the space often doesn’t exist to begin with, and the space that does exist often isn’t affordable.”
Ringling College has heard complaints that indicate a lack of opportunity and available space is a contributing factor that causes graduates to leave the area, according to spokeswoman Christine Lange.
Ringling has been working with other stakeholders in the North Trail — particularly New College and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee — to make the area a fertile ground for new projects to flourish.
Lange said Artspace, as well any other project that seeks to improve the trail, could be a step in the right direction for retaining graduates and promoting innovation.
“The trail is key to that,” Lange said. “Most of the work is cleaning up the eyesore and creating gathering places, using it as an asset.”
Morgan’s efforts are currently focused on getting the various stakeholders that she believes would benefit from an Artspace project — the city, the colleges, the local organizations and the individual citizens — to help pay to bring in the consultants. The City Commission and Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation have each committed $5,000 to the cause, and Morgan says individual donations are coming in, as well.
The support for the proposal has grown substantially since Morgan first spoke before the City Commission in December, with the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County now serving as the contracting agency for the project and collecting donations toward the $15,000 goal. Those who have come aboard credit Morgan with having the dedication to fight to have her vision realized.
“I think it’s remarkable that you have a person who is in the artist community already who has the drive to make this thing happen for the arts community,” Morriss said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected]