Springboard for the Arts is on the second story of a brick building in St. Paul. But it is a ground-level type of organization.
The nonprofit connects artists and communities, encouraging cities to see creative people as a cornerstone in successful community development. Soon, Springboard will model every one of the strategies it’s been espousing at its own building. In May, it purchased a vacant car dealership on W. University Avenue.
Springboard plans to turn it into a highly visible headquarters, artist market, community space — and a bit of shorthand.
“Just explaining what Springboard does, verbally, is hard,” said Laura Zabel, its executive director. “But we find that when people are part of the work, when they see the work, then it all makes sense.
“This building is about giving that a more permanent space to happen.”
The $5.1 million project, which includes the $1.5 million purchase price, will take time. After an open house June 23, Springboard will begin hosting workshops and markets on the property, a block from Marion Street, including the Little Mekong Night Market. Construction starts in 2019. Springboard will move its offices by 2020.
For 27 years, since its punk rock beginnings (Chris Osgood, founder of the punk band Suicide Commandos was longtime director of artist services), Springboard has rented space in Lowertown. But it’s been doing work along University Avenue for years.
“Springboard has had a history on the corridor, partnering with individual organizations,” said Va-Megn Thoj, founder and executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association. The arts are a core area for that organization, too, which is located nearby on University, in an area it began branding as Little Mekong.
“Springboard’s move will really scale up that impact,” said Thoj, who is also a Springboard board member — as well as an amateur filmmaker. “It’s going to have a huge impact in this neighborhood.”
In 2012, during construction of the Green Line light-rail, Springboard hosted a party in the very parking lot it just purchased. They had contacted the building owner, asking to use the space. Photos of the event show food trucks, artists creating projects, a small stage.
“Ever since then, every time I drove by, I thought, ‘I love that space,’ ” said Zabel, who has led Springboard since 2005.
When the nonprofit’s board voted to begin pursuing a permanent home, Zabel told the Realtor: “Our ideal space would be 262 University Avenue.” But it wasn’t for sale. The organization checked out dozens of other possibilities. They were close to acquiring one property, and on the day that fell through, Zabel again googled “262 University Avenue.”
A real estate listing popped up.
Zabel envisions the garage doors opening up to a market. An accessible rooftop with a view of the State Capitol and Cathedral of St. Paul. Open office space, with more room for workshops. Springboard will do a call for artists to create work for the fence, the windows. Pulling up a photo of the current building — a gray, industrial, one-story building — Zabel laughed.
“People would look at this space and say it’s not really attractive,” she said, “but I’m just in love with it.”
Over the past decade, Springboard’s work has swelled. Its budget has grown to $1.8 million, its employees to 16. The nonprofit boosts artists, providing workshops and career consulting to help them navigate issues and construct businesses. But led by Zabel, Springboard has become known nationally for its work around what she calls “creative people power” — how urban and rural areas can draw on artists to build better communities. In short, artist-driven development.
“That work has grown and grown,” Zabel said. “It does feel like this space, this lot, is the opportunity to put that into action and be able to show it to people in a more legible way.”
Springboard decided to buy the building first, fundraise second. The cost of real estate in the area was rising, and the board worried that soon, the market would not only keep them out — but erase potential community gathering spaces, generally.
“Now, you would be hard pressed to find an urban planner who would think it’s a good idea to put a 50-car parking lot here,” Zabel said. “But what if, accidentally, that preserved this open space?
“I like taking this thing that a lot of people would see as a challenge and flipping it on its head and saying, ‘What if this is an amazing resource for the neighborhood?’ ”
Last week, Springboard got good fundraising news: The St. Paul, the F.R. Bigelow and Mardag foundations will grant a total of $500,000 for Springboard’s project. Those foundations look at “how the arts help us create a great place to live,” said Sharon DeMark, program officer for the St. Paul and Minnesota Community Foundations.
Springboard has a long relationship with that neighborhood, DeMark noted. “With all the work they did during the light-rail construction, they were such a presence there, and such a positive presence,” she said. “It seemed like a real natural next step for them to become a more permanent neighbor.”