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ARTISTS AIM TO TURN BLIGHTED AREA OF S.L. INTO A WORK OF ART

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They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But a group of artists in Salt Lake City's west downtown say they're determined to prove that what some may see as an isolated and crime-ridden neighborhood holds the potential to thrive as a prosperous and safe cultural community.Salt Lake sculptor Stephen Goldsmith founded the private, nonprofit organization Artspace nearly 10 years ago when he couldn't find a studio and living space in Salt Lake City that catered to his needs.

Since then, Goldsmith and his organization, with the help of community-development block grants, have transformed what was once a run-down machine shop and abandoned produce warehouse into a cultural complex boasting 35 live-in artists, an architectural firm, an antique store, a graphic arts company, and several galleries and live performance stages.

The complex includes an exhibition for artists from local homeless shelters and a gallery for disabled artists, he said, and the commercial spaces in the restored building are all filled with small operations that accent a growing cultural neighborhood. The three-year waiting lists for both living and working spaces continue to grow.

Now, Goldsmith says, the lot just across from Artspace at 325 W. Pierpont Avenue will become a part of his dream community. Artspace has secured loans to acquire the Twirl Town Toys building at 327 W. 200 South and the adjacent California Tire building. The $6 million project, set for construction to begin in November, already has a waiting list of 140 hopeful renters.

Funded by a $1 million grant from the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, a loan from Zions Bank and a no-interest loan from the George Eccles Foundation, Artspace's new addition will feature 53 loft housing units and more commercial units on the main floor. A dance company and architectural firm will be among the new renters.

The operation is self-sufficient and serves a true community purpose, Goldsmith said.

"Artists are city builders," he said. "We have a lot to offer the community."

Since its beginning, renters at Artspace have donated time for workshops, provided art for low-income clinics and shelters, raised urban gardens and hosted community performances.

Goldsmith says as the neighborhood grows and becomes a viable cultural part of Salt Lake City's downtown, Artspace wants to encourage diversity in the population of the west end, not just turn it into "an artists' ghetto."

He's working now on bringing support services such as grocery stores to the west end, a step he sees as essential to the revitalization of the inner city.

The neighborhood still has a "perception of threat," and a crime rate that discourages or frightens some, he said, but the group plans to be patient and work for change.

"It's a shame that when I take my dog for a walk, I put my dog in the car and drive to 11th Avenue," he said.

Also, he says, "there has not been a strong community commitment to housing downtown."

"When we started, we were told we couldn't do this in Salt Lake," he said. "But we like to say Artspace is a safe place to take risks."

And Goldsmith says they will continue to take risks and work for a community they know can exist - a social, cultural district full of "appropriate, compatible development" and people who love the city and will make the neighborhood work.