Why the Firehouse Needs $500,000 to Keep Its Roosevelt Row Art Space

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Michael 23 has been doing some serious math. 

Recently, the artist and business owner (who uses the last name 23 because he's fascinated by the number) learned that the building where he’s spent 15 years operating the Firehouse art space with wife Joanna Lee is up for sale. So he started crunching numbers, and says he’s calculated that the list price for the property, located at 1015 North First Street in Roosevelt Row, actually is less than the total they’ve spent there on rent and utilities. It’s listed for a half-million dollars.

Coincidentally, that’s how much they’d need to raise to buy the property outright from owners Theodore and Ethel Matz, who own the building and several more Phoenix properties through a family trust. "I'd be more than happy to sell it to them," says Theodore Matz, a retired attorney who lives in Roosevelt Row, where the building was his office from about 1970 to 1982. "The building out back was a nice old house," he says. During the late 1940s and 1950s, his grandmother lived there. "I'm not a speculator," Matz says of his decision to sell.  

Today, the Firehouse has eight studios, says Michael 23, and several residents. The couple has a home in Phoenix, so they don't live at the Firehouse. Instead, they split their time between their Phoenix house and a building in Miami, Arizona — where they operate an arts venue called Miami Art Works. They're renovating an old house in Miami, but they're waiting for a new roof to go up before they actually can use it. 

Technically, Michael and Joanna Lee would only need a down payment and a way to cover monthly payments thereafter in order to buy the Firehouse.  So far, they've raised just over $2,000 using an online Go Fund Me crowdsourcing campaign. It’s not the first time the couple has turned to supporters for financial assistance. In September 2014, they held a fundraising event to help pay off debt incurred while tackling wiring and electrical issues spotted by the city of Phoenix.

They launched the campaign on February 10, and they're asking for donations totaling the exact list price for the property, which is $500,000. The fundraising doesn't require goals or deadlines, so they won't have to raise a certain amount by a certain date in order to keep their donations. 

They'd like to buy the building outright rather than making payments, he says, because they'd feel more secure about being able to keep a permanent presence there. If they don't buy the building, Michael 23 says, funds raised through their crowdsourcing campaign will go toward getting a new space.

Michael 23 says they learned the building was being sold after a friend used Facebook to share a link to the building’s online listing, although Matz told New Times by phone on February 18 that he let them know "a week or 10 days ago." In any event, they weren’t entirely surprised, Michael 23 says, because the owners have long told the couple they’d need to sell the place one day due to ongoing health issues.

And they’ve suspected for some time that this moment was coming, says Michael 23. “We’ve sort of had this sense of impending doom for a few years.” In part, it’s been fueled by disputes with the city of Phoenix, which told them in 2011 that their outdoor main stage wasn’t up to code. After that, the space went dark for a time.

But there’s something else at play: recent and expected changes in the Roosevelt Row arts district. The Firehouse – best known for presenting an eclectic mix of art, music, and performance – sits just off the beaten path of Roosevelt Street. Michael 23 decries what he considers gentrification, wrought by new developments and other changes – including lining streets with trees placed in jumbo flower pots. Although he's just leasing the building, Michael 23 shares Matz's opposition to the formation of a business improvement district because it means more taxes for local property owners. 

Despite all those changes, the couple wants to stay because of their strong roots in the community, Michael 23 says. Before they started the Firehouse, they had a venue called Thought Crime. He says they’re eager to help preserve the social capital created through the years by the artists who developed Roosevelt Row into the popular destination it's become today.

So they’re soldiering on, even as they bemoan the changes. During Art Detour, they’ll open an art exhibit called “The End Is Near.” The title is a reference, Michael 23 says, to not only the possible fate of the Firehouse, but also to the end of Roosevelt Row as they know it.

It’s impossible to know how much longer they may be in the space, Michael 23 says. He expects they’ll get at least a 30-day notice once they need to leave, unless of course they somehow manage to raise enough money to buy the place themselves or the new owners will let them continue leasing the space. So they’re also planning for future exhibitions, including their annual tree-themed show in April.

And they’re exploring their options, knowing The Firehouse may need to relocate. The couple has property in Miami. So that’s one option, Michael 23 says. But he’s also talking with other Phoenix folks who figure they’ll also need to find new spaces, although he declined to share their names. He’s keeping an eye out for possible spaces in Phoenix. 

Still, Michael 23 says the best-case scenario would be staying put. He’s hoping to stick out the changes and help to preserve some of Roosevelt Row’s pre-development boom character, while helping to shape its future. “We would love to stay where we’re at,” Michael 23 says. “That’s our goal.”

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