RINO’s loss Aurora’s stroke of good fortune?

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AURORA | About a year and a half ago, painter Ron Zito moved into the quaint industrial stucco building known as the Bella Glass Studios in the River North Arts District.

“I came here mostly for the space,” says Zito, who before moving to the bustling creative district, worked for seven years in a smaller studio at East Seventh Avenue and Grant Street closer to Downtown Denver. There he says he payed $400 a month for about the half the space he has now.

He also has much higher ceilings now to house expansive landscapes that include stoic Colorado plains set against shimmering sunsets in his new workspace, which measures 465 square feet. With only a wall to divide himself from the other artist he shares a large warehouse room with, his studio is replete with the bohemian charm of distressed dark wood floors and skylights to think and paint under.

Zito is reluctant to say how much the rent is at Bella Studios because at times, he says, it seems too good to be true.

“It’s more than what I was paying before, but for the amount of space, it’s really a good deal, and we’re all afraid of our rents going up,” he says.

Rent in the RiNo arts district — bounded by Interstate 70 to the north, Interstate 25 to the west, Park Avenue West to the south, and Arapahoe Street to the east — has increased exponentially as the mostly industrial area just north of Denver has become a hotbed of new retail, restaurants, and high-density residences. According to the commercial real estate site LoopNet, rent in RiNo increased 16 percent from 2014 to 2015 alone.

“It’s a problem facing arts organizations in general across the board,” says Tracy Weil, executive director of the Aurora Cultural Arts District. And Weil says Aurora — an affordable option just minutes from east Denver — is looking to cash in and lure artists increasingly disgruntled with Denver’s soaring rents.

In early March, Weil attended a meeting at the artist-run cooperative Ice Cube Gallery in RiNo. There he listened to 23 people from 12 different galleries discuss joining forces and potentially moving to a city that would offer them an incentive package for studio space in return for the vibrancy and potential dollars they could bring to a municipality. According to a 2010 study conducted by Americans for the Arts, that amount is over $6 billion annually for local governments across the nation.

Sarah Rockett, a member of the Ice Cube Gallery who attended the March meeting, said after the meeting that rent for the 2,600-square-foot Ice Cube gallery space is increasing from $1,300 to $5,000 in June, and that it’s simply too much for the co-op’s 22 members to split.

“Our landlord has gotten to the point where he has to lease the space for market rate because he’s losing so much money on the property tax,” she says. “If we aren’t able to find something in Denver, we’ll be looking at the suburbs.”

Could Aurora be the next frontier for artists like Rockett? She says maybe, but that Aurora would have to feel much more like it’s just minutes from Denver, and less like it’s practically in Kansas.

“One reason Aurora is low on the list is fact that light rail does not yet go through there,” she says. “We also have to consider our customer base. Are they going to come out to Aurora?”

She says that if Aurora city planners could come up with an incentive package where herself and fellow artists could thrive — in either a space like the Source in RiNo where businesses share an open-format retail space as well as resources — she would consider the move.

Weil, who wields quite a bit of clout in the Denver art community as co-founder of the RiNo district, says such a space could be in Aurora’s future, given the city’s increasing ownership of the Aurora arts district.

Following the purchase of The Aurora Fox Cultural Arts Center in the mid-’80s and more recently the ACAD studio space at 1400 Dallas St., the city has now added both The Vintage Theater as well as a studio directly across the street from The Fox to its growing list of arts and culture properties.

When asked about it, Aurora City Planners would not comment on whether they were actively courting the group at the Ice Cube gallery.

“We had heard about this group of artists in RiNo looking at Aurora as a potential option but we have not met with them,” said City of Aurora spokeswoman Julie Patterson. “We certainly would be interested in talking with them further.”

Zito says if Aurora offered a space comparable to the Bella Studios and he could no longer afford his rent in RiNo, he would consider moving.

“People are already looking for where to go next if RiNo gets too expensive. I don’t know, maybe Aurora would be the place,” he says.

Staff Writer Quincy Snowdon contributed to this story.