CE_compilation_72The Spaceworks program in Tacoma, now celebrating its fifth year, can be described in many ways. It’s a chance for artists to find space to displaytheir work, it’s a dynamic network of creative enterprise, it’s a path for new businesses to create sustainable models, and an opportunity for property owners to fill their vacant storefronts and spaces.

But whatever you do, don’t call it an incubator. At least in front of Amy McBride, the Arts Administrator for the City of Tacoma, and one of the original founders of Spaceworks.

“I hate the word incubator. I like incremental transformation,” she explains. “You know, which is very different than the incubator. I don’t like the idea of incubators saying: you should be good enough to kick out of the nest. I like the idea of growing and staying,
of nesting.”

Over the years, Spaceworks itself has grown from matching up artists and their projects to Tacoma’s vacant spaces, to a full-fledged platform for training and professional development for emerging creative entrepreneurs. Spaceworks has launched over 40 new businesses in the city of Tacoma, many of them focused on the arts.

“The arts have sort of always been an economic development corner of this city,” McBride says, “so I’m always thinking about how to build a capacity for artists and arts organizations.”

Here’s how Spaceworks works: property owners donate their vacant spaces, while artists and creative business can apply with their ideas about how to fill the space, with everything from short term installations, window displays, pop-up shops to more permanent businesses and projects. Spaceworks acts as a sort of middleman, interfacing with the property owners, allowing six months to be rent free while the businesses set up, and facilitating training to keep the businesses sustainable once the market rate rent kicks in.

Seeking to fill the vacant spaces with a variety of different types of businesses is the key to paving the way for the success of the program, explains Heather Joy, Spaceworks Manager for the past three and a half years.

“The idea behind the types of businesses we work with, they are creative and innovative,” she says. “And so it actually is really broad, and we don’t have it defined in any specific way for a reason.”

How broad? There’s everything from a chocolatier, to a custom furniture store, a skate shop, a marketing firm, an art supply store featuring reused materials, a graphics and comic book company, a coffee brewer, and even a piano rebuilding company. Boutiques and creative service organizations coexist along with more traditional art and sculpture galleries.

“We’re casting the net pretty wide, but destination quality is imperative to this,” adds McBride. “It has to be a creative business: even if you said, ‘Oh I want to do a shoe store.’ How are you going to do that differently than your regular shoe store? Are your designs going to be different? Are you bringing in handmade stuff? Will you have art on the walls? How will you add things that make it interesting?”

Spaceworks has discovered that adding business training and peer-to-peer support is an essential component of success for these projects and businesses. Why? “We found that if we just hand them the keys and say good luck it doesn’t always work out,” explains Joy.

McBride says while creatives are entrepreneurial by nature, traditional business models are often unable to address their dynamic, specific needs. “I think there is a gap sometimes between creatives and traditional models for business training, be it from distrust or just having little knowledge of how it’s done in the business world, but there’s definitely a gap.” McBride says.

The “secret sauce” that creative businesses need to sustain success, McBride says, often comes from collaboration with other creatives, learning how to market themselves, and finding ways to financially expand their base, which is built into Spacework’s training programs now.

One example of successful training is Have Not Films. A recent graduate of Spaceworks’ Creative Enterprise program, Have Not Films is a film production, development and distribution company. Director of Production Sean Patrick Burke’s most recent feature, As You Are had its domestic release in the American Drama competition at Sundance last year, and will be screening at the Tacoma Film Festival October 6.

Have Not Films partnered with Spaceworks to find an affordable space for workshops, networking events, and meetings, in order to bolster the film community in Tacoma. Now that they’ve found their new space in the old Columbia Bank building in the Hilltop neighborhood, Have Not Films is aiming to help make Tacoma a major film hub in the state.

“Spacework’s model is brilliant,” says Patrick Burke. “They seek out up and coming businesses and help them find a home without hurting the company financially. It is a win-win for the city and whichever company they are helping, as it lowers vacancies within the city and eventually will boost economic growth.”

Being a catalyst for economic growth in the city was one reason why the JPMorgan Chase Foundation chose to support Spaceworks recently with a $100,000 grant. Spaceworks is using this support to help keep existing Spaceworks businesses sustainable, while also developing a strategic plan to guarantee their own growth and capacity for taking in new projects as well.

“We’re developing kind of like an alumni program for our existing businesses so that we can provide them with coaching. We’ve also put together a small micro grant program for them, to help create that support network between them, because they’re great mentors for each other,” explains Joy.

In addition to building their strategic plan, the program is planning some ambitious next steps: eventually buying property outright instead of renting it from property owners, so as to maintain affordable space for artists and creatives in the face of inevitable gentrification.

For now, Spaceworks is focusing on the gallery they just launched, working on developing their co-working space, 1120 Creative House, and preparing for the 2016 Tacoma Arts Month Opening Party and AMOCAT Arts Awards that they are hosting on September 29 in conjuction with Tacoma Arts Month this October.

Heather Joy, for one, wants more people to know about the creative potential of Tacoma:

“I think that there needs to be more exposure for the creative people here that are doing all of this great work. And I think Spaceworks – we call ourselves the little marketing machine – that the stories we’ve been able to tell about the creative community in Tacoma – the makers and the arts and culture that’s here, has only helped make the potential of this place grow.”

McBride adds that opening up more opportunities for artists, filmmakers, graphic designers, and small business owners to be drawn to Tacoma as a creative destination is the key to economic development in the city.

“It always goes back to building the capacity for creativity to grow and thrive,” McBride says. “I really want people to know that Tacoma is a creative town and a place where creatives are welcome and encouraged.”