The State of Fort Houston: The Tennessean Weighs In, Co-Founder Responds

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In today's Tennessean, Joey Garrison reports on the state of Fort Houston, the artists cooperative run by the founders of the now-defunct Brick Factory. A simple zoning upgrade has led to misunderstandings between the Fort and the building's landlord, which Garrison hints might lead to further troubles down the road.

Owners of Fort Houston, a for-profit venture led by Ryan Schemmel, lack a use and occupancy permit to operate long term on the space they rent. To obtain one, they must make available 39 parking spaces on site because the warehouse falls under a new classification: a vocational school.

The property isn’t nearly large enough.

Fort Houston has applied for a variance with the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals to function with 19 parking spaces instead. A hearing is set for June 6.

But landlord Robert Moore Jr., in a May 15 letter, has asked that the request be withdrawn and removed from the appeals board’s docket. The codes department must oblige the request of either the tenant or landlord. Not siding with the latter would be highly unusual.

Oddly, Moore’s objection referenced a desire not to “change the zoning” of his property. Yet the variance would actually keep the zoning intact.

“Where that leaves us is, if we can’t get that variance, we can’t legally operate out of this building,” Schemmel said. “What’s frustrating to us is that the objection just doesn’t make sense.”

Read Garrison's whole story here.

Fort Houston has issued a statement in response. Interestingly, Schemmel glosses over most of Garrison's points without disagreeing with any of them, and throws in a few paragraphs about the viability of their business model. Read the Fort Houston statement below (emphasis theirs).

We know a lot of you have had questions about where we are and what we have been doing. This morning’s Tennessean article explains exactly what has been going on over the last 7 months, including our hesitancies, support and general enthusiasm about the future progress of creative job growth and artistic expression in Nashville.

We would like to note a few things — the online article is titled “New artists warehouse Fort Houston runs into codes issue” and the print edition is titled “Arts Space Seeks Zoning Variance.” Both of these are true, and we encourage you to read the article before continuing here. We would like to note that these are requirements that must be met by law, and we have been actively and willingly pursuing them. All other hurdles aside, in no way is any of this the fault of the codes department.

However, this does open things up for a new discussion. As we are sure many of you know, most arts based businesses and organizations are non-profits. Thus, they are eligible for certain things that are not available to for-profit businesses. Now, why are most of them non-profits? We all know the stereotype that the arts and artists don’t make any money; that poses certain problems when trying to start a for-profit based arts business. Financially speaking, it is extremely difficult.

When considering a for-profit business model, anyone out there with investment money absolutely needs to know that they can get their return. Equally as important, they need to know how quickly they can get a return. When shopping around one’s arts based, for-profit business model or social enterprise, it doesn’t necessarily attract the most attention. Simultaneously, one is ineligible to seek out grant money (in most cases). Therefore, if you are able to raise any money at all, chances are that it will be very, very little. Once the money is raised, you are then faced with any and every obstacle any and every small business has ever faced.

In Fort Houston’s case (formerly Brick Factory Nashville), we find ourselves in a position needing to make necessary and understandable renovations with not enough money. Finding a space in Nashville move-in ready with multi-use purposes, enough parking, and adequate facilities in a neighborhood soaring like Wedgewood-Houston — the de facto arts neighborhood — is nearly impossible. We want to be here with our neighbors, like Zeitgeist, Infinity Cat, Houston Station, Gabby’s and every other artist in this neighborhood.

We need a 360 degree view of the model and the way policy plays a part — establishing a new type of social enterprise business model, raising enough money, working with local officials and private business owners. We can definitely look to places like New York City. Yet, we can also look to places like Paducah, KY, and how they have fostered their artists, creative spaces and programs. We can explore extensions and other incentives.

Here are the facts:

- In less than a year, we were able to put nearly $15,000 into the hands of teachers and other artists in the creative class

- In our first year, we also hit $60k in revenue and are on track to do more than double that this year

- We launched over 40 courses taught by Nashvillians

- We have reached 30 small businesses, individual hobbyists and professionals who are depending on our resources and consistently call our space home

- Our creative members have worked on projects for local coffee shops all the way to projects for Bonnaroo, Lululemon and other major events and corporations

The model is working, and it is sustainable, but it needs room to breathe. We are on track this year, and that is without fully living out our model. We want the Nashville community to continue its excitement about its creative class. We want to host After Crawl events and showcase young, local talent. We want you to teach a class on controlling lasers through your new smart phone app. We want you to be who you are, and we want you to be part of our community here at Fort Houston.

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