Torontonian sees potential in transit barns

Red Deer could be a magnet for artists and other creative folk by offering them something Calgary and Vancouver can’t — affordable studio and living space, says a Toronto social entrepreneur.

Red Deer could be a magnet for artists and other creative folk by offering them something Calgary and Vancouver can’t — affordable studio and living space, says a Toronto social entrepreneur.

Tim Jones, president of Artscape, a non-profit group that’s revitalized many Toronto neighbourhoods by turning heritage buildings into art spaces, sees much potential in the vacated Red Deer transit barns.

Located in the former civic yards in the Riverlands area, the barns are close to downtown, the Red Deer River, bike paths, and even Red Deer College. The latter presents an interesting opportunity, said Jones, who’s been dubbed a social entrepreneur for putting into action his idea of using artists to revive neighbourhoods.

He noted that dozens of visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, and actors graduate from the college each year. But most of these young people leave the city if they don’t find enough interesting things to do here.

“One of the biggest drains on smaller communities, financially and socially, is the out-migration of their youth,” said Jones, on Wednesday, after addressing a focus group that’s looking at how to redevelop the vacant Red Deer transit barns.

He feels Red Deer would gain vibrancy by retaining these young, creative citizens — or even attracting artists from larger, less affordable centres.

The key is creating local opportunities, added Jones. For instance, this could mean creating more affordable studio and living spaces than are available in the surrounding larger centres.

It isn’t accidental that all Artscapes projects in Toronto ­— including transformations of a former Victorian industrial complex into a profusion of specialty shops and cafes, and dilapidated streetcar barns into award-winning multi-use for arts, environmental and community space — have catered to the artistic community.

Jones, believes artists are pivotal to the redevelopment of neighbourhoods.

They tend to move into low-rent digs and start up artsy ventures. Their trendy stores, cafes and galleries then attract shoppers and pedestrians, which usually drives up property values in the area.

Artscape has gotten many projects going by gathering a “critical mass” of artists, who can collectively afford a down-payment and pay a mortgage. Municipal support, government grants, and fundraising were also used to finance ventures, said Jones, who described his group as a sort of middle-man, bringing together artists and financial institutions to make projects happen.

Along with the creative set, Artscape has also involved other stakeholders, including environmental agencies and educational groups.

Creating a mix of artistic and market space in the Red Deer transit barns has been discussed locally. And Jones believes these are promising ideas.

He said a local approach is imperative to any project. “It takes imagination to look at a site . . . and it’s important to be creative.”

Twenty-five people from the city’s business, cultural communities and farmer’s market were invited to brainstorm for ideas on Wednesday in the Scott Block. This will lead to a developing an action plan. Colleen Jensen, the city’s community services director, anticipates great ideas will result.

She added the Scott Block is an example of a community revitalization project that’s worked out well for users, such as dance and theatre groups, and the downtown.

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