Art Center Waco is establishing a beachhead on Austin Avenue and looking to make downtown its permanent home within the next few years.
The center is planning to use the Woolworth Building at 605 Austin Avenue in December for its annual “Cool Yule” Christmas sale. The Art Center Waco board also has agreed to lease that building in the next year as a satellite gallery, but that depends on getting city approval to use Tax Increment Financing Zone funds on the renovation.
The nonprofit arts group is planning to leave its longtime home at McLennan Community College when its lease expires in 2017, repositioning itself in the heart of a revitalizing central city, officials said.
“One way or another, we’re going to move to downtown, and it’s going to be sooner than later,” Art Center Waco board president Bryant Stanton said. “We’re committed to it. Our faith is in downtown Waco getting an arts district established. I really do believe that if the Art Center makes a presence downtown, others will follow.”
Stanton said one possibility for a permanent home is the Stratton Building at 800 Austin Ave. A private developer has included Art Center Waco as a tenant in a bid for the building, Stanton said.
The Art Center was established downtown in the 1970s and moved to the old Cameron house at MCC in the early 1980s.
Stanton said the Art Center needs to broaden its base and reclaim the leading role it once played in Waco’s art scene.
“Through the years that’s kind of been eroded, partly because we’re out at the MCC campus, and the activity is happening downtown,” Stanton said.
Stanton said the downtown relocation would accompany a push to get more donors and participants for the Art Center, which now operates on a budget of about $250,000. Stanton said the board would like to greatly expand its series of exhibitions, perhaps showing several at a time at different locations.
Stanton said the Stratton Building would be an attractive option for the Art Center because of its proximity to the Hippodrome Theatre and its wide-open ground-floor space with wraparound mezzanines. He said the Art Center might use the ground floor, mezzanine and basement for its activities, which would include arts education and regular exhibits.
The Waco Downtown Development Corp. is seeking proposals for redeveloping the building, which is owned by its sister nonprofit, the Business Resource Center. Proposals will be opened Dec. 6.
More than a decade ago, the Art Center made a move toward building a new museum downtown, buying land from Waco Independent School District at Jefferson Avenue and North Fourth Street. The board couldn’t raise enough money for the project and ended up reselling the land to WISD.
Board members this year hoped to make a foray into downtown by opening a gallery at the Woolworth Building, which formerly housed CrossFit gym.
They planned to use some of the $100,000 the Art Center received from the resale of the land to WISD to renovate the space as part of a lease agreement.
But that plan ran into an obstacle Friday when board members learned about city restrictions on using that fund. The Art Center originally had bought the land with $100,000 from the Tax Increment Financing Zone, a tax reinvestment fund for downtown development.
City leaders have told Art Center officials that the TIF Zone would have to reclaim the $100,000 unless the Art Center found a new TIF-eligible use for it.
City Manager Larry Groth told Art Center officials that they would have to make a new application to the TIF board for the Woolworth project, subject to TIF board and city council approval.
Groth said that process could take one or two months, and he’s not certain whether renovating the interior of a leased space would fit the TIF board’s criteria.
Stanton said he was disappointed by that news and uncertain whether the project will go forward.
Still, he said the board remains committed to downtown.
“We have faith in downtown and faith in Waco,” he said. “We’re going to put our reputation on the line and say, ‘If you build it they will come.’ I really feel like with young artists emerging in Waco, they will support what we’re doing.”
Chris McGowan, urban development director for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said the Art Center’s move would accelerate the emerging art scene that’s beginning to enliven downtown.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to move the ball forward in creating a critical mass of cultural arts,” he said. “The interesting thing about the arts in general in Waco is that we have a robust offering of things, but they’re so spread out you have to know what you’re doing.”