A new firehouse uproots the small art community that made South Main Street its home

wreckingballIllustration by Samantha Schuyler

The 1960s brought a small hiccup of change along South Main Street.

It was innocuous enough: up went a new city fire station, bright and red bricked. And up went the “closed” sign for George’s Meat and Produce, a small grocery store next door.

While the station teemed with activity, the grocery store stayed vacant.
It attracted cobwebs. The windows frosted over with dust, and they stayed that way for years.

The effects of those two changes–considerably minor compared to the rest of the ‘60s–took a few decades to shake out. And this year, it will reach its conclusion as the firehouse expands to uproot the art communities that have recently called South Main Street home.

Decades after George’s Meat and Produce shut down, Chris Fillie had an idea. It came when he noticed a pattern: Old, deserted spaces would become occupied by artists, usually because of the cheap rent. The building became more vibrant as the artists stuck around, making it their own. And up went the property value.

Then came the developers. Catching wind of the value spike, they’d start sidling up to the property owners. After all, the artists didn’t own the place–the landlords did. And as great as it was having artists around, the developers offered a persuasive amount of money. As a result, the landlords would either bump up the rent or sell the place.

The artists couldn’t afford to stay. They lost their space.

“Art doesn’t make a lot of money,” Fillie said. “But it brings a lot of money.”

Wanting to end the profit-seeking cycle, Fillie, now a consultant at Carbon Solutions, started buying up old buildings. He would rent to artists and let them stick around, uniting under what would eventually become the non-profit Vibrant Community Development.

It all started with George’s Meat and Produce, which Fillie started renting in 2005 and officially purchased in 2007. He cleared out the dust and introduced artists to the space. Now it’s home to the Civic Media Center.

The grocery store’s transformation started a series of purchases that ended with Fillie owning almost all the buildings clustered around the city’s fire station. As artists began to breathe life into the old buildings, the once-new fire station began acquiring dust of its own.

“For perspective,” City Communications Director Bob Woods said, “consider that…John Kennedy was in office when the building became operational.”

Soon the station was too old to meet basic standards, Wood said. And it was unsafely small. So in February, Wood said the City Commission put aside funds for a bigger, better station in the city’s 2013-17 Capital Improvement Plan.

Then the city gave him a call, Fillie said. In the spirit of his non-profit, he turned to his tenants. He asked them for a number — how much would they go for?

Fillie said the Civic Media Center determined it’d take about $1 million. The Citizen’s Co-op told him about $700,000.

The city had offered much less.

“A couple hundred grand,” Fillie said, laughing. “It was less than I paid for the damn thing.”

So the city turned to the surrounding property.

But by incubating a small artists’ colony, Fillie encouraged artists to expand into buildings outside his safety net. Around 2007, some of the artists from his buildings started renting a large, one-room property across the street. It became the Church of Holy Colors. Artists gathered there to create immersive art experiences and host shows with live music. Then in 2012, Fillie subleased the 2,000-square-foot building that would become the Repurpose Project.

Fillie said months after he had proposed to buy the buildings for $500,000 and draw them safely under the umbrella of his non-profit, the city came around.

“I gave the city and Chris Fillie the same offer,” said David Mathia, landlord of the Church of Holy Colors.

“I gave Chris Fillie first dibs on the place, and he was unable to meet the transaction.”

Mathia said he required a down payment that he could not meet. While the city had cash, Fillie only had plans, he said.

He had been working with Gator Nest, a program through the University of Florida’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, in creating a plan to develop the property. Fillie and Gator Nest would have taken about five years. The city was ready to close in a few months.

“I would have preferred to sell it to Chris,” Mathia said.

But he owned the property for 30 years and was ready to give it up. The money, he said, was for his retirement fund.

And on Aug. 15, the city purchased the land. Three pieces–the Church of Holy Colors, the Repurpose Project and Everyman Sound Company–were sold to the city for a grand total of $1,050,000, Woods said.

Fillie said he is sad to see the buildings go, but that the plans for them have only been rerouted. The Repurpose Project had been looking for a bigger space, and the artists from the Church of Holy Colors had a presence at the Elestial Sound record label’s building.

However, the Church of Holy Colors won’t be moving.

“Events will still happen, and art will be made elsewhere,” said Evan Galbicka, director of the Church of Holy Colors. “But probably the exact type of experiences that were possible here are very unique to this space.”

Galbicka said that the Vibrant Community Development helped sponsor a year of essentially no rent. And with no economic pressure, Galbicka said the artists want to go out with a bang by hosting more experimental performances that are free to the community.

“The people make the experiences, they make the art,” Galbicka said. “The space is partly to do with that, but there’s other spaces in town.”