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The allure of the arts: New businesses thrive in Grand Center

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2012 - Florian Kuplent has worked in breweries all over the world, from his native Germany to Belgium to London. In 2011 he decided to open a brew house in the Grand Center district of St. Louis.

“We saw the building initially and thought it was really cool, but there wasn’t much around it at the time,” said Kuplent.

However, Kuplent and his business partner David Wolfe saw potential in the location and opened the Urban Chestnut Brewing Company on Washington Avenue. The move paid off, as the Grand Center district has been bursting with new neighbors over the past few years.

“There wasn’t much going on in this area even five years ago,” said Kuplent, who has lived in St. Louis for the past eight years. “The stuff that has been going on here in the past few years has been pretty incredible … the whole area is definitely expanding … it’s been exciting to see that.”

The Grand Center district of midtown St. Louis, encompassed by North Vandeventer Avenue, North Compton Avenue, Lindell Boulevard and Delmar Boulevard, is home to 12 museums and galleries, 12,000 theater seats and 1,500 cultural events each year. The area attracts more than 1.5 million visitors annually. Its growing reputation as a cultural hub is part of what has attracted a number of new businesses.

“There’s just so much happening in Grand Center right now … it’s just vibrant,” said Dan Rubright, director of arts and community partnerships at the Grand Center Arts Academy.

Vincent Schoemehl, President and CEO of Grand Center Inc., has played an integral role in moving the district forward by working with development firms, such as the Lawrence Group, to revamp old buildings and introduce new venues. The area already features a number of well-known performing centers; according to Schoemehl, the focus is now on making Grand Center “a place where people want to walk, linger, come to before a show or stay after a show.”

In the past two years, Grand Center has welcomed a number of new establishments – everything from restaurants and bars, to hotels and apartment buildings, to schools and centers for art.

The Metro Theater Company, for example, celebrated it's 40th anniversary this year by moving into a new 7,000-square-foot building on Washington Avenue.  The building more than doubles the company's work space and the Grand Center location provides numerous opportunities for collaboration with other arts groups.

Here’s a look at Grand Center’s newest neighbors, as well as a preview of what one can expect to see in the next year.

Grand Center Arts Academy: Schoemehl said the Grand Center Arts Academy is one of the projects he’s most proud of. When the academy first started in 2010, the school only hosted grades six and seven, and everything worked out of the Third Baptist Church on North Grand Boulevard. However, it was obvious that a new building was necessary for the program to expand and grow.

According to Rubright, the board of directors for Confluence Charter Schools collaborated with Schoemehl and Grand Center Inc., as well as with the Lawrence Group, to make a deal to redevelop the old Carter Carburetor complex at 711 North Grand and turn it into a school. Now, in its new location, the Grand Center Arts Academy hosts 440 students, grades six through nine, and there is a waiting list for three grades. Since GCAA is located in Grand Center, students have the unique opportunity to go out in the community and experience all the forms of art surrounding them.

“I like to say that our school is centrally located in this building, but it actually spills out,” said Rubright. “The school is really in this whole community.” GCAA plans to add a class each year, so that the school will eventually host grades six through 12. According to Rubright, there are also plans to work with the Lawrence Group to renovate the old Sun Theater next door to GCAA to host a performance auditorium and more classrooms.

With all the excitement surrounding GCAA, Rubright emphasized the importance of academics, citing the school’s strong MAP scores. “It’s really about the academics,” said Rubright, “but using the arts to sort of infuse the entire curriculum … it keeps kids engaged and I think it makes learning more meaningful, more relevant, more interesting.”

UMSL/St. Louis Public Radio: This year, the University of Missouri-St. Louis officially opened its new building on Olive Street. The 27,000-square-foot building hosts academic offices, classes and conference rooms and is also the new home of St. Louis Public Radio.

After 40 years of broadcasting from Lucas Hall on UMSL’s campus, employees of St. Louis Public Radio now work quite literally beside two of the city’s other nonprofit media organizations – the Nine Network and the St. Louis Beacon.

Metropolitan Artist Lofts: The once-abandoned and dilapidated Metropolitan Building has been transformed into a haven for local artists, featuring 72 lofts and four on-property studios.

Jeffrey Hugget, vice president of development and project partner at Dominium, the real estate management group responsible for creating the Artist Lofts, said the Metropolitan building was in bad shape before construction started. “We’re thrilled with how it turned out,” said Hugget.

He said the location was specifically chosen because Grand Center has so many art programs going on all throughout the year, making it an excellent place for an artist to live. Grand Center "is a very unique location. It has a great history to it, and I think it has a great future ahead of it as well,” said Hugget.

Urban Chestnut Brewing Company: Even though he had the opportunity to work in breweries all over the world, including a stint at Anheuser-Busch, Kuplent said his dream was always to open a brewery of his own. He and Wolfe chose Grand Center as the home of Urban Chestnut because people in the area are genuinely interested in beer, and he recognized a market to introduce new craft beers. “Business has been very good,” said Kuplent.

The newest feature of the brew house that patrons can enjoy is a beer garden that opened a few months ago. Urban Chestnut’s brews are now distributed throughout the St. Louis area and Kuplent is working to increase distribution on a regional level.

According to Kuplent, Grand Center is a great place to own a company because there is a diverse mix of people that come to the area for all different reasons – whether they’re coming from a show at the Fox, one of the new restaurants in the area, or perhaps from one of the local universities. “It’s a good neighborhood with lots of exciting things happening, and it’s great to be here,” said Kuplent.

P.W. Shoe Lofts: Since opening in 2009, the P.W. Shoe Lofts have experienced great popularity, especially with SLU undergraduate students, according to Tina Rafael, senior vice president at Rafco Properties.

“Occupancy has been at 100 percent for the past couple of years,” said Rafael. She credits the Shoe Lofts’ success partially to the location (on Locust east of Grand), with its proximity to SLU, the Moto Museum, the Field House Pub & Grill and the Ducati dealership across the street. The first floor of the apartment building also features Epiphany Boutique.

Feeling Hungry? Hungry for more than art? Several new restaurants have opened in the Grand Center district over the past few years.

In 2010, City Diner opened its second location next to the Fabulous Fox Theater. Across the street to the east is Kota Wood Fire Grill, opened in 2010 by Triumph Grill’s Steve Smith. Dooley’s Beef N Brew House also opened across Washington from the diner in 2011. And The Upper Crust on Delmar is the latest Sweetie Pie's venue. Flying Cow Frozen Yogurt on Locust Street offers sweet treats.

Hotel Ignacio: This boutique hotel, which opened in April 2011, features rooms that embody one of four artistic themes: fine art, performing arts, architecture or music. Rachel Crowley, director of sales at Hotel Ignacio, said that Grand Center was a natural choice of location, and the four themes of the hotel are manifested within the neighborhood itself.

“Right off the bat, we were welcomed by people in the immediate area,” said Crowley. The hotel hosts many families that come to visit Saint Louis University, and Crowley said business is picking up. The hotel collaborates and has package deals with many other Grand Center groups, including the St. Louis Symphony, Pappy’s Smokehouse and Urban Chestnut. Hotel Ignacio recently received a four diamond rating from AAA – the highest rating available for a boutique hotel.

Looking forward:

International Photography Hall of Fame: After 47 years at Oklahoma City’s Photographic Art & Science Foundation, the International Photography Hall of Fame will soon call Grand Center home. According to John Nagel, president of the Board of Directors at the Photographic Art and Science Foundations, the IPHF will move to a space above Triumph Grill on Olive Street.

Many cities were considered for the new location, but Nagel said St. Louis was chosen for its unique configuration, with more than a dozen nearby universities with accredited photography programs and the largest and oldest camera club in the U.S.

"The unique cultural richness of Grand Center really made it persuasive," added Nagel. The IPHF plans to have both vintage and contemporary exhibits going on at the same time and hopes to also host a number of events, including guest speakers and competitions with local photography students.

Though the gallery will likely not be open until mid-year 2013, events are already taking place around St. Louis. The next event will be a print sale with local photographers at FK Studio on Locust Street Nov. 10. Nagel said there is a lot of enthusiasm in Grand Center, and the IPHF is looking forward to officially calling it home.

KDHX Radio: KDHX has been building a community in St. Louis for 25 years, but a community through airwaves can often be logisically divided in its geography, with listeners siloed in their cars or offices or homes. With the independent station planning to move into a new building on Washington Avenue in Grand Center, that invisible audience will be able transform into a more tangible presence.

KDHX still needs to raise an additional $400,000 to start construction on the Larry J. Weir Center for Independent Media. The new building, which will be able to accomodate up to 300 people for live shows, is simply on a different scale than the station's current digs, which was originally a bakery on Magnolia Avenue. The first floor of the building will be a café that also functions as a venue for music, film, theater and other programming, with the second floor dedicated to broadcast and production work.

The station's 25th anniversary party last weekend at Schlafly's Bottleworks was a testament to the diversity of the community KDHX has created, and the variation it will bring to Grand Center. "Two hip hop DJ's, hippie kids dancing, and a whole bunch of people watching the ballgame. All in this space. That doesn't happen in St. Louis," said Beverly Hacker, excecutive director for KDHX.

Within the context of the city's music landscape, Hacker says that the new venue fills a niche that doesn't exist elsewhere in the city: an intermediate space that can afford to consistently take risks on lesser known bands. The station hopes to move into its new Grand Center home in late spring or early summer of 2013.

Public Media Commons: Plans are in place to transform the empty lot between the Nine Network building and UMSL's Public Radio building into a public space where art and digital media meet: the Public Media Commons.

According to Kay Porter, senior director of marketing for the Nine Network of Public Media, St. Louis is unique in that all public media groups are independent from each other. However, the Public Media Commons will provide a space for St. Louis's public media to together create events, such as concerts, lectures, debates and digital art presentations.

"The idea is to make it a really interactive, innovative, ever-changing environment ... where public media come together within an arts district ... a place where people feel comfortable coming to," said Porter. The commons will feature large-screen projections, performance stages and other interactive technologies.

According to the Public Media Commons plan, the goal of the new space is to build a sense of community, use arts as a bridge to cultural diversity, embrace teaching and learning and to use this investment to spur other investments in Grand Center. Porter said community members can expect an untraditional groundbreaking ceremony toward the end of the month.

Missouri Theater Building: Though plans have stalled to renovate the Missouri Theater building, Schoemehl is optimistic that work will begin soon. According to Schoemehl, the plan is to turn the building into a Hyatt Hotel and also build apartments on the top four floors. Schoemehl hopes that ground-breaking will take place by the end of the year.

Intern Jason Schwartzman contributed to this article.

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