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Monday, June 25, 2007 | Downtown Encinitas can’t be accused of lacking creative flavor. From the mosaic tile trash cans lining the streets to the gold-and-blue domed Self-Realization Fellowship Temple that twinkles with thousands of lights during the winter holidays, the town is filled with color and flair.   

“There’s an artist of some kind behind every other door around here,” said Barbara Milé, an Encinitas native and former city art commissioner.

The revitalization of the downtown area over the last decade has brought business and tourism to the area. Boutique clothing shops, gardening supply stores and hair salons now fill the city’s downtown area.  

However, that boom has also raised rent to the point that the community artists are having a hard time affording gallery space in the very area they helped define. “It works against us in a way because when the town is revitalized, the rent goes up,” said local artist Donna Butnik. 

Aesthetic and structural improvements made to the downtown area of old Encinitas are part of a revitalization program run by the Downtown Encinitas MainStreet Association. More than $23 million went toward the development of new shopping centers, streetscape renovations and art-specific programs such as the Arts Alive street banners. In 2004, DEMA received a Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The association was praised for having “successfully harnessed the community’s artistic spirit to develop an arts niche.” 

Since 1997, the rate for a commercial space in the popular shopping center The Lumberyard has doubled from $1.50 a square foot to about $3.

“When you are dealing with artists you know they often can’t afford market level rents,” said Encinitas Arts Commissioner James Gilliam. “But at the same time, having those markets in your venue can be a huge draw.”

Most of the local artists join up with either the San Dieguito Art Guild or the 101 Artists’ Colony. These nonprofit groups offer space and companionship for artists to show, produce and sell their work — that is, when the space isn’t being torn down.

In the last 10 years, these groups have bounced around in various office spaces and soon-to-be demolished buildings throughout the downtown area. Each home is as unique as it is temporary — from the basement of a coffee shop in Leucadia to a group of bright pink cottages along the bluffs of Moonlight Beach.

Since the 101 Artists’ Colony formed in 1998 it has moved four times. After losing its lease of a downtown building in 2004 when the landlord wanted to raise the rent, the colony found a land developer willing to let it use a group of pink cottages while he was in the planning stages of development. Last week, the colony said goodbye to this latest home before it was bulldozed to the ground to make room for new luxury condominiums.

“It’s just a real tough business for local artists to get established in this area,” said Danny Salzhandler, founder of the colony.

The SDAG has been around since 1956, and spent more than a decade in the basement of the Pannikin coffee shop in Leucadia before the owner decided to expand his growing business. Luckily for the organization, another local developer gave it reduced rent price at a metal barn along Highway 101. It is currently waiting to receive notice from the developer that the building, which it has named the Offtrack Gallery, is ready to be razed to make room for a 105,000-square-foot retail and condominium complex.

“It’s always sad because you get attached to these places,” Milé said “They become home.”

DEMA president Peder Norby said the number of private galleries in Encinitas has risen in the last 10 years, but non-local artists with more money and resources often own them.

“There are plenty of galleries in Encinitas opening up and doing well,” Norby said. “It’s these community galleries that are struggling to find a permanent home.”

The struggle of artists to afford gallery space is not unique to Encinitas. Coronado, which also has a MainStreet program for its downtown area, has had to deal with the same problem. Coronado MainStreet President Rita Sarich said both local artists and smaller businesses have been affected by the downtown revitalization in Coronado.

“Our small mom-and-pop businesses struggle to pay top dollar rents from our property owners,” Sarich said. “I’m sure that is true in a lot of fully developed beach communities like Encinitas and Coronado.”

Sarich said cities have to find a balance between improving the downtown area while keeping it affordable for local businesses and artists.

Encinitas artist Penny Ottley said community galleries like the Offtrack Gallery are essential because they allow artists to come together and learn from one another.

“I come here to improve my craft,” Ottley said. “This place gives you the connections that local artists need.”

Norby said he has always helped the 101 Artists’ Colony and SDAG find new buildings, and he will continue to do so because he considers the local artists an important part of the community.

“We’ve been through this process before,” Norby said.

Gilliam said he has had talks with John DeWald, the developer of the property where the SDAG is currently residing, about offering reduced rent space for the guild once the project is finished.

Local artist Jim Hornung said the artists should not depend on gracious developers entirely.

“The bottom-line is that these new developments need to make money,” Hornung said.  “It may not always be in their best interest to give reduced rents to the artists.”

Hornung suggested the art groups look to other areas such as Pacific Beach, which utilized space inside the Taylor Branch Library.

Gilliam and Norby said the city does not own enough vacant property to dedicate an entire building for a gallery.

The Encinitas library is currently being rebuilt, and the new building will contain a large area with wall-hanging fixtures, adequate lighting and stage areas for the community artists to use, Gilliam said.

SDAGP Laura Lowenstein and Salzhandler are optimistic that the new library facility will offer their groups a chance to show their art, but an affordable permanent space still eludes them.

“It’s just not as desirable as having our own gallery,” Lowenstein said. “I think we are running out of places to go.”

Please contact Susan Grant directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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