Staging a Comeback: Aurora betting arts district is on its way in

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AURORA | Big changes are headed to the northwest corner of East Colfax Avenue and Florence Street.

In less than a year, the empty retail space that dominates the busy intersection will  reopen as the newest anchor of the Aurora Cultural Arts District. Nicknamed “The People’s Building” by city planners, the former furniture store will relaunch as the new home for the Kim Robards Dance studio. Construction plans for the 13,000-square-foot arts center include a 160-seat main theater, studios, dressing rooms, office space and a smaller, black-box theater. A new restaurant and an expanded parking lot are also part of the early designs for the complex.

“That whole block is going to change tremendously,” said Kim Robards, who now runs her studio out of a smaller space on the other side of Colfax. “I’m just so excited for what it will bring to the community artistically.”

She’s not the only one who has high hopes for the project. Robards is working closely with officials from the city on plans for the new building and the changes to the surrounding landscape. That makes sense, considering that Aurora officially owns the building at Florence and Colfax. Officials haven’t determined a final price for the reconstruction, but one part of the deal is clear: Robards’ rent will go directly to the city. 

“This is definitely a new dynamic,” said Robards, who moved her studio from Denver to Aurora last year. She relocated after landlords in an up-and-coming neighborhood decided they could make more money from a different tenant and kicked her out. “Art organizations go in when nobody wants to be there, and then the arts get kicked out when everyone wants to be there,” she said.

The deal is only the latest in the city’s larger investment in the Aurora Cultural Arts District,a 16-block stretch of Colfax between Florence and Dallas streets.

The improvements to the area aren’t new — starting in the early 2000s, the city invested in projects such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the Florence Square apartment complex through the Fletcher Plaza Urban Renewal Area. The city has drawn on Community Development Block Grants, Brownfield Redevelopment money and other funding mechanisms to make improvements across the district over the past decade. 

A different kind of investment came from the city this year and connects directly with the art district’s tenants.

In December, officials from the Aurora Cultural Arts District nonprofit organization signed a three-year lease agreement with the city for the building at 1400 Dallas St. Under the agreement, ACAD administrators would pay $10 a year for the building. ACAD manages the building, pays utilities and collects rent from tenants like the PHAMALY Theatre Company.

The same month, the Aurora City Council approved a similar deal with the Vintage Theatre for one full year. Funded by a grant through the Colfax Economic Enrichment Program, the city will cover $80,000 in mortgage payments for the theater at 1468 Dayton St.

“The economic downturn was very, very hard on arts organizations. That’s another reason for shoring up our support,”said Andrea Amonick, the city’s manager of development services. 

That kind of support has been critical for arts organizations that are working hard to attract new visitors to the area. 

“‘Young Frankenstein’ was one of our most financially successful shows. It takes a lot of cash to start up a big project like that,” said Vintage Artistic Director Craig Bond. “If the city hadn’t intervened, it would have been difficult,” he added, noting that the theater missed three of its first 14 mortgage payments for the building. That monthly payment totals around $8,000. “This gave us another $16,000 over a two-month period to build a much more elaborate show.”

The city’s agreement with ACAD gave the nonprofit the flexibility to make improvements to the building at 1400 Dallas St. and hire Tracy Weil as managing director of the district. Weil, who helped build the River North arts district in Denver, said the arrangement has helped keep the focus on events in the district. 

“It takes a lot out off our shoulders,” Weil said. “It’s given me the capital to be able to really dive in and really try to make a difference the best way that I know how.”

But Amonick adds that the tenants still have to have “skin in the game” for the partnerships to work. For example, Robards plans to lease the $875,000 space at Colfax and Florence directly from the city. She’s looking for support directly from company patrons. Before the doors on the new facility open, Robards wants to raise $250,000.

“We always want the arts organizations to have skin in the game. We expect them to participate in the cultural atmosphere,” Amonick said. “There’s likely to be some buildup to make sure they can stabilize and operate. We want them to be financially stable.”