How a small town used abandoned buildings downtown to grow its arts opportunities and local economy

These stories are brought to you by a partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the NEA’s Our Town program.

For Stone Mountain, an Atlanta bedroom community with a history of racial tensions, Main Street had become a faded memory of busier times. ART Station, a local nonprofit, set out to reimagine the small pedestrian corridor as a district bustling with arts- and culture-related activity.

This new vision would support an active homegrown arts community, while stimulating economic development along Main Street.

Stone Mountain, Georgia is a 12,000-resident town just 12 miles east of Atlanta. Founded in 1839, the municipality was a cultural node during and after the Civil War. An 800-foot-high granite mound—Stone Mountain—rises directly adjacent to the city and features a carving that depicts figures of the Confederacy – Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.

A 3,200-acre park surrounds the mountain, serving as a recreational area that draws seven million paying visitors each year.

Considered a bedroom community, many of Stone Mountain’s residents work in Atlanta, while many Atlanta residents go to “the village” (what the town is known as regionally) for cultural and recreational getaways. The community is diverse—approximately 25% white, 70% African American, and 5% Hispanic or Latino.

But for all the area’s current charm, it has also been known for high racial tensions. Destroyed in the Civil War, it now prominently features a memorial to Confederate leaders, and the modern Ku Klux Klan was founded there, in 1915, which led Martin Luther King, Jr. to cite the city in his “I Have Dream” speech.

Stone Mountain has faced a struggling local economy, which is evidenced by a spate of empty storefronts along its Main Street. The challenge for the city was to attract some of the 20,000 cars that use that corridor every morning and evening to commute to and from Atlanta to stop along Main Street.

Additionally, the city had a large potential audience in the seven million people who visit Stone Mountain each year. Because of its history of racial tension, there was a strong need to provide programs and activities that would bring together the entire Stone Mountain community.

ART Station, a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to supporting and exhibiting art in Stone Mountain, envisioned a Main Street bustling with residents and visitors engaged in arts- and culture-related activities. Empty storefronts would be transformed into busy galleries and workspaces and activate the sidewalks in front of them.

The group launched what it called the Stone Mountain Arts Project (now called SMart, Inc.), which provides space for artists to

Artists were encouraged to stay in the cultural district after graduating from the project by partnering with another artist to open their own space.

create, exhibit and sell art. Not only would this support local artists, it would also help to catalyze economic and cultural activity along Stone Mountain’s Main Street.

ART Station partnered closely with the City of Stone Mountain and the DeKalb County Department of Community Development. The City Manager, an enthusiastic supporter, helped to facilitate the leases with property owners, and the billing for insurance and utilities, but these responsibilities were later shifted to ART Station. ART Station managed the program by
providing workshops for the artists, selection of the artists, policies for the operation of the galleries/studios, and marketing services.

The program also relied on generous support from volunteers, so the Stone Mountain Woman’s Club, the Downtown Development Department, Main Street Stone Mountain, Inc., the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, and the State of Georgia Department of Economic Development were important partners in rallying and organizing volunteers.

The SMart, Inc., artist incubator project started with 5 visual artists and one culinary artist in 2010 who were located in 3 buildings that were renovated through the program. The project now provides eight artist studios and five art galleries to a roster of diverse local artists.

The studios are provided at a minimal cost ($50/month), and the organization provides technical assistance and business training to artists. In return, each artist agrees to open his or her gallery and studio at set times (11-7 Wednesdays through Saturdays), and to pay a 30% commission back to the city for art sales. ART Station helps by organizing public events and artist networking opportunities.

“Every single participant in the program, even those who left, said the opportunity to be part of the arts incubator fulfilled a lifelong dream for them.” Erin Bailey, ART Station

David Thomas, President and Artistic Director of ART Station, said that “the program has changed the face of our downtown by renovating four downtown buildings and putting vibrant and colorful art studios and galleries in.” With six studios, four galleries, and one cafe, the program has made significant changes to the Main Street landscape. With the NEA’s support, ART Station has also been able to move ahead with two additional studio spaces and additional programming.

ART Station has stimulated tangible economic development outside the program itself. Three new restaurants opened in Stone Mountain citing the area’s revitalization as the reason why they chose to locate in the Village. One Main Street restaurant even changed its name to “The Artisian” to reflect the changing focus of the area. Two private galleries and a frame shop have also opened.

The change is being recognized regionally as well. The Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia Trend Magazine awarded the program the Best Economic Development Program in Atlanta’s metropolitan region.

Inspired by the work in Stone Mountain? Find creative, positive uses for your own empty spaces with the Your Idea Here toolkit or through the [freespace] toolkit, available on Creative Exchange’s Toolkits page!