A Sarasota businessman has turned an undesirable area into a viable arts colony -- and created a trend.
By Amy Welch
In the late '80s, N.J. Olivieri, president of Horizon Mortgage Corp. in Sarasota, started buying houses in a blighted area known as Towles Court, just a few blocks from downtown. He envisioned redeveloping the area into a Colonial-style village.
By the early '90s, however, local artists had persuaded him to build an artist colony instead, a place where artists would live, work and sell from their homes. "We decided on an area of artists because we thought they would make it into a viable community," Olivieri says.
By 1995, Olivieri had accumulated about 30 houses. Kathleen Carrillo, a painter, was one of the first artists to move there. She persuaded Olivieri to paint the houses bright colors -- purple, green, yellow and orange. New tin roofs tie them together. Olivieri, who paid $20,000 to $50,000 for the houses, sold them to artists for between $90,000 and $110,000, sometimes taking art as a down payment from artists who could not raise enough cash.
The investment in Towles Court paid off. Not only is it now home to about 40 artists and 30 galleries, a restaurant, art center, rented studios and a yoga center, but most of the homes would sell for between $275,000 and $375,000.
Six new houses have sprung up next to the colony since the redevelopment.
Impressed with the transformation of Towles Court -- which the artists say came with little help from the city -- Bradenton is making similar efforts to create a Village of the Arts in an 18-block area that once was home to crack houses and prostitution.
The city is offering Bradenton artists matching grants from $1,000 to $5,000 to refurbish houses and landscapes. About 25 artists have bought homes in the area for about $50,000 each.
The city has reconstructed sidewalks, installed antique street lights, redesigned the sewer system, added street signs and is planning to add a trolley stop, says Annie Roussini, executive director of the Artists Guild of Manatee. Crime has already dropped by 98%, she says.
For the artists, it's a dream come true. "I always had a gallery separate from my home and would have to clear at least $1,500 (a month) just to make a profit," Carrillo says. "Now, I'm living, working and selling my art without the overhead."
In the News
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