Rockland’s status as the “Arts Capital of Maine” has grown in recent years. But as the city becomes a place where more people want to be, how to keep the city an affordable place to live has been a hot-button issue.
City officials are viewing a recent proposal by an arts foundation to create a dormitory-style living environment in an old high school building as one way to make living and working in the city more affordable, at least for artists.
“It’s an experiment. Let’s see how it works. If it works well, let’s expand it so we can make sure we remain a welcoming space to artists,” City Councilor Valli Geiger said.
The proposal from the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to provide resources directly to artists, gained initial approval from city councilors last week. A public hearing and final vote is scheduled for the city council’s March 11 meeting.
The foundation currently rents four classroom-sized studio spaces in the Lincoln Street Center, a former school near downtown Rockland that closed in the mid-1990s. The building is owned by Orchid LLC, which leases most of the space to artists who use its classrooms as studios.
Currently there are about two dozen artists working there.
Donna McNeil, executive director of the Ellis-Beauregard Foundation, has asked city leaders to rezone the building to allow for a kitchen and expanded bathroom to be installed for the four studios the foundation uses. The dormitory-style space would not be permanent housing, McNeil said, but would allow artists who belong to the foundation’s residency program the option of living there during their six-month residency.
The foundation offers residencies that provides artists with a space to work in the Lincoln Street Center as well as a monthly stipend. Currently, resident artists must commute to their studio space in Rockland, sometimes from up to two hours away, McNeil said.
By giving them the option of staying at their studio, McNeil said the program could open to a larger pool of artists.
Securing affordable space for artists to live and work is crucial to attracting and keeping them within a community, McNeil said
“If a young artists comes to town and they don’t have to pay separate money for a studio and separate money for their rent, but could combine those, that makes living here really affordable and that makes pursuing their work really affordable,” she said.
While the current proposal would create a limited number of living spaces if approved, it is an entrance to the conversation for how creative housing can take shape in the city.
City Councilor Amelia Magjik attended art school in Cleveland and lived in a former Ford factory, where many other art students lived. She said over time, the space became a cultural hub in downtown.
“You want to live where you work,” Magjik said at last week’s city council meeting. “I think this is a brilliant idea. […] I think this is a great opportunity to support a portion of our population who would love to be able to live where they’re working.”
Affordable space is what drew artists and gallery owners to Rockland in the 1990s, at a time when the city was coming out of a grittier period of its history. Geiger said young artists and entrepreneurs were a large part of what make Rockland “come alive again.”
While the city is not yet pricing artists out, McNeil said as Rockland grows to be a place valued by developers, escalating rents could trigger an artist exodus as it did for many artists living in Portland.
“If you don’t carve out your space early, space will become to developers overly precious, and they will price out working-class people and artists,” McNeil said.
The city is at a crossroads when it comes to affordable housing, Geiger said. The city recently repealed a set of controversial zoning changes that aimed to create more space for the city’s housing stock to grow, but the city council intends to continue looking at the issue.
Geiger said the Lincoln Street proposal is one path to test that housing model in a “very small entry, very safe way.”