Afrikmall has room to grow Aurora’s artisanal space


AURORA | The Aurora Cultural Arts District could be getting a boost from local residents with roots across the Atlantic Ocean in the coming months regarding the neighborhood’s ongoing quest to add some much-needed studio space.

Afrikmall, the city’s recently opened bazaar for all things African culture on East Colfax Avenue, is tentatively planning on converting as much as 10,000 square feet of space in its now-empty third floor into some sort of creative space for local artists.

“The idea at this point is to have some artists form a co-op and then basically rent the space for their studios,” said Cobina Lartson, founder and CEO of Afrikmall.

Momentum behind the project began to accelerate about a month ago when Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan suggested to a handful of city politicos that the new mall look into renting out creative spaces in their auxiliary floors after earlier plans for the facilities fell through. Lartson said that he and his development team originally planned to turn the third floor into a small gym or office space. Those plans were abandoned after the mall became mired in months of delays before its eventual opening.

“I think the important thing is everybody wants that (Afrikmall) project to succeed,” Hogan said. “We also want the Aurora Cultural Arts District to be successful so, to me, it just seemed like it was a natural fit, even if it turns out to be a temporary fit.”

Exactly how the massive industrial space at Afrikmall will be developed and parceled out is still very much in limbo, according to Bob Hagedorn, president of the ACAD board of directors and founder of the Fax Aurora business league.

“The opportunity that presents itself is potentially to use that as creative space, which can be leasing 3,000 square feet to a theater company for rehearsal space, finding an art co-op that might be interested in 4,000 square feet, as well as obviously subdividing the area into individual studios,” Hagedorn said. “It would just add to the flavor of downtown Aurora.”

Hagedorn, who has been involved with discussions regarding what to do with Afrikmall’s third floor for several months, said that the bedrock of the proposal was to inject the bazaar’s revenue streams with some much-needed cash.

“They also need a steady revenue stream in order to pay the bills, rent, etc.,” he said. “I’ve been … putting together a sort of rough design or rough draft for how to increase income for the mall.”

Following several months of delays, the $1.5-million mall officially opened in December 2015. To help fund the project, city officials worked with owners of the 56,000-square-foot building on a $165,000 tax-incentive deal that will be paid back via sales tax.

But the first several months of business at Afrikmall have been sluggish, according to Lartson, who said that he believes renting studio space could buoy the mall’s books.

“First of all (a creative space) increases our cash flow, which right now we’re dying for,” Lartson said. “Secondly, it increases the diversity of the businesses in the building, helps our bottom line, and makes us more likely to be successful.”

Beyond creating an extra revenue stream, a third-floor build-out at Afrikmall would more than double the amount of studio space currently available in the ACAD. Currently, the ACAD boasts just two buildings that rent spaces to visual artists, one of which is owned and operated by the city. Aurora took control of the gallery space at 1400 Dallas St. in December 2013 after the former tenant, The Other Side Arts, defaulted on loan agreements with the city. The former District 1 police station now offers 14 studios, which average about 240 square feet in size and cost roughly $1 per square foot in monthly rent, according to city documents. The only other rentable studios for artists in the ACAD are housed in Jubilee Roasting Company at 1452 Kenton St. Jubilee boasts about a half dozen micro studios that are rented out to a rotating crop of creatives. The coffee shop’s studios became available at about the time venerable Aurora creative Walt Weinberg shuttered Sunrise Artworks, a separate creative space with 13 studios he operated in the ACAD for nearly 20 years.

What happens with the Afrikmall space will ultimately be decided by the mall’s board of directors, according to Hagedorn and Lartson.

Hagedorn has estimated that a build-out of the mall’s third story could run about $100,000, and could come from any number of sources.

“The future is in creative space, but exactly how that develops I think is going to be decided by the market,” he said.

Hagedorn said that no one is currently planning on asking the city for any sort of financial assistance for the potential Afrikmall project.

Ward I City Councilwoman Sally Mounier said she’s optimistic that additional studio spaces would provide both Afrikmall and the ACAD with a needed jump-start.

“It’s still in the preliminary stages, nothing is inked, but it certainly would be a wonderful addition, frankly, for artists to be on the third floor,” she said. “There’s plenty of parking, the light is apparently good — I’m hopeful.”

Mounier added that the city is in the process of issuing a request for proposal that calls for a feasibility study that would determine how the local arts district could be improved.

“The purpose is to see if the arts district is being utilized to the fullest extent possible,” she said. “What is it that we should be doing to enhance the arts district itself.”

In March, Aurora City Council approved $25,000 to go toward paying the eventual arts district consultant. City officials met with representatives from Minneapolis-based consulting firm Art Space to have discussions related to analyzing the ACAD last year.

“I don’t think there is a single arts district in the metropolitan area that was successful over night,” said Hogan, who voted in favor of the ACAD-targeted RFP earlier this spring. “Every one of them has required help and direction and confirmation of needs, so the RFP to study what comes next just fits.”

Mounier said that the RFP could be issued by the end of the month.

Doug Adams, principal at Cornerstone Equity and longtime north Aurora advocate, said that more than just studio spaces, the district needs an overall uptick in the number of places where patrons can mingle.

“Do we need more studio space? Yes, but we also need something different,” Adams said. “Finally we have Jubilee down the street for coffee, but we need a few more of those places. It’s hard to hang out in a place unless there’s coffee, collaboration and places to spend time together.”

— Staff Writers Brandon Johansson and Rachel Sapin contributed to this report.