City hears development pitch

Jack Nickels is a Billings real estate agent and long-time patron of the arts who uses colorful language when discussing the challenges that his creative friends can have managing their finances.

"It's like trying to corral a bunch of calves getting back to their mothers," Nickels says. "It's almost impossible to do."

Nickels has always felt an affinity for the arts, and that's among the reasons he's hoping to launch a development for creative people to live and work in Missoula. He's asking Missoula City Council this week to evaluate the merits of such a project.

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Nickels first started brainstorming the idea in 1989 when he encountered a similar development in Portland owned by Artspace, a nonprofit that specializes in building and operating affordable apartments and studios. Artspace now runs 35 such properties across the country.

Nickels initially aimed to grow the project in Billings, but that effort "hit a wall," he says, and left him looking to Missoula.

An Artspace market study conducted in Billings nearly three years ago estimated that rental prices in that community would run about $650 a month, depending on the size of the unit. The standard Artspace apartment, Nickels says, runs about 1,500 square feet.

To qualify for an Artspace unit, applicants would have to earn less than 60 percent of area median income and be a practicing artist. "You don't have to be a good one," Nickels says. "You have to be active."

Artspace Senior Vice President for Consulting and Strategic Service Wendy Holmes explains that the developer keeps rental prices low by drawing from federal resources designed to serve low-income people, including housing tax credits and community development block grants. Holmes says Artspace provides 80 percent of the required funding.

After council hears Nickels' pitch, the next step involves seeing whether there's enough local interest to move ahead.

"We'll really leave it open to a core group of stakeholders," Holmes says. "It has to be the community itself that really buys in and chooses."

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