Even on a grim day in deepest winter, Shakopee's old railway depot radiates a gentle, feminine warmth.

For a decade or so it has been a quilt shop, with rows of bolts of soft fabric that line the high brick walls and ancient tile flooring of what feels like some chic urban loft.

Just outside, however, this piece of Shakopee is dying. One after another, businesses that once lined one of the busier highways in the state are falling empty, now that a freeway bypasses the center of town.

So an idea to create an arts colony out of empty spaces that are just sitting there, still heated, year after year after year, has Lori Gillick, one of the quilt shop's co-owners, intrigued.

"Arts groups struggle for funding," she said, "and if it would help keep this part of town vital, I'm for it. I sure don't like being surrounded by empty buildings."

A lumberyard across the street closed years ago, not long after she opened. Then, quite recently, a smaller building beside it. And soon the aging fire station kitty-cornered to both will fall silent, as a new one opens elsewhere.

Artist and arts activist Mike Haeg has the ear of newly elected Mayor Brad Tabke in arguing that what looks shabby to the average passerby represents an opportunity for a town in search of fresh ideas.

Apart from the quilt shop, which has a phenomenal following, right now it's "a no man's land," Haeg said, "a place where no one goes or even looks. But that's exactly the sort of place artists need. Cheap, not heavily trafficked, and it becomes a space where innovation can spark. For the right user, it's a pretty amazing spot, full of neat, high, open spaces at low overhead. There are grants you can get for things like this."

The news that the city was considering different uses for the fire station, including a community center, got him thinking.

"It's next to the railroad tracks, with not a lot of parking, so no one will buy it," he said. "But it's a cool building, built to last. It has a kitchen, it has water, and I started to think about art spaces: There's a little room for briefings that's the right size for a classroom. There's a medium-sized bay and a huge bay. It's like studio space. You could showcase art."

The general idea has occurred to people before, Gillick said. "There was an artist in wood renting space in the old feed mill." And a seasonal boutique uses some of the empty space around the holidays.

The mayor is intrigued.

"Mike's an eccentric, extraordinarily interesting guy," Tabke said, "and I'm listening. We're sending a message to everyone to have big dreams. It's kind of the mantra we're going with. So many people say, 'We can't start a new restaurant, there aren't enough things going on here.' I couldn't disagree more. We have to get everyone into a different mindset. We need to plant seeds."

Tabke himself took some gibes for throwing Shakopee into the mix for a Vikings stadium at the last moment without being willing to put money into the mix. But there are spinoff effects, he said, to having a few days in the sunlight, appearing on TV news broadcasts and radio interview shows.

"We want the stadium, but even if it doesn't happen, we introduced a new idea and we promoted a land sale in a big way, a very public way. We want something on that land, and even if it doesn't happen, we've gotten the word out that there's a huge and well-positioned piece of land available, and we've gotten inquiries already. It's been great."

Possibilities abound

Plenty of other towns have arts spaces of varying kinds, Haeg said.

Coincidentally, neighboring Savage is confronting money-losing problems with Savage Art Studios, a public-private partnership in its old downtown. City council members are being asked to consider putting more money on the table.

That struggle could either serve to illustrate the dangers for Shakopee, or create an opportunity to fill a void if the Savage effort fails.

In Shakopee, Haeg would like to see something that goes beyond just the incidental contact that occurs between buyers and artists at arts and crafts fairs.

"I can see artists in different mediums, three every month, working in spaces the public could visit and see them work. It would make art more relevant.

"You could have a big space where art is shown, but also rent it for art shows, weddings, large quilting shows, who knows? Maybe a euchre tournament. A food market. Anything people rent space for. And the art would constantly change."

The mayor has talked about innovation space for startups -- Prior Lake happens to be thinking along the same lines, and residents expressed some support in a survey released last week -- and these spaces could help make that happen as well, Haeg said.

"There's plenty of space down here, and some good restaurants -- it is semi-attractive. You're not stuck in an industrial park someplace. It's very multicultural as well. My wife and I sent our son to preschool through first grade in Minneapolis, after being from here initially, and worried that his growing up in Shakopee would be Lutherhoovians only, but his classroom here is more diverse than Minneapolis."

There's also, he said, the Stillwater angle -- the "why can't we be Stillwater?" lament that is heard in Jordan and other places.

"The opportunity is totally there. It blows my mind. Valleyfair. The horse track. We have great old buildings downtown, lovely old Shakopee Brick buildings. Why can't we have wives antiquing and B&Bs, shopping downtown, as the husband's at the track or at the casino?"

David Peterson • 952-746-3285