Where There’s a Mill, There’s a Way

IOM Surfaces as an Artistic Center for Commerce in Western Mass.

Charles Brush

Charles Brush, owner of the Indian Orchard Mills, said art-related businesses will help bolster the region as well as his property.

Photographer Lesley Arak, co-owner of FNS Studios located in the Indian Orchard Mills, recently entered her studio to find her camera – the hub of her business – missing.

A thief had entered the building and stolen the equipment, but he didn’t get far – the mills’ owner, Charles Brush, was hot on his tail, chasing the suspect through the village on foot.

After a few hours of weaving through side streets and local watering holes, the thief was apprehended, and is still in jail, according to Brush, who said he took the crime personally.

“We run a tight ship here,” he said. “We protect our own. The doors lock at 4:30 every day, and we have great security. Sometimes things happen, that’s true everywhere. But we don’t wait for problems to happen, and we don’t let them slide when they do.”

The incident did create one positive: it called attention to the mills and its diverse set of tenants, many of them artists recruited to the eight-acre, 300,000-square-foot complex by Brush himself. IOM is just one of several mills in the area that are now experiencing a rebirth as they are converted for new uses, many of them art-related.

But Brush, who bought the mills in 1999, said the property has long had a strong arts-related business presence. Instead of searching for a new purpose for the complex, he said he’s concentrating on strengthening what has already proven to work – the cultivation of the arts, but with attention to the property’s long industrial legacy.

“There were several artists already here when I bought the mills,” said Brush, who purchased IOM from Muriel Dane, and said she was the first to cultivate the mills as a thriving space for artists in addition to light industrial tenants. “I continue to meet with the artists twice a month. They are a very large part of what goes on here.”

Mill Culture

Indeed, when Brush first signed on as the mills’ owner, it held 68 tenants. Today, that number has risen to 126, 43 of whom are artists working in a variety of media – painting, sculpture, and photography among them.

True, the buildings’ make-up has changed since then. The mills were once home to a number of large manufacturing tenants that occupied as much as 70,000 square feet, but today, most of those larger companies have moved on, making way for a larger number of smaller businesses, both artistic in nature and otherwise. There are several machine shops on site, for instance, and soon a solar paneling company will set up shop.

“Everyone works together,” said Brush, noting that the mix of businesses allows for some intriguing economic practices, including creative recycling; instead of Dumpster picking, many artists now have standing relationships with other businesses, using what would otherwise be waste in their work.

Brush added that despite the still-high number of more traditional businesses at IOM, the property’s artists are also serving as the catalyst for economic growth in the area.

“We’re becoming a well-known arts center,” he said. “I think we were way ahead of the curve recognizing the arts and art-related business as economic drivers.”
Brush noted that in a large space like IOM with such a diverse list of tenants, that economic force can be seen and studied firsthand.

“It’s like a mini-chamber of commerce,” he mused. “It has to do with compatability – most tenants are local tenants who work in all sorts of fields, and here they have the opportunity to work together, pooling and sharing resources and ideas.

“We’ve been lucky,” Brush continued. “We’ve been able to attract visual artists to the space, but also arts-related companies.”

Brush said a number of tenants still conduct light manufacturing, but several also represent creative fields, such as graphic design and Web development firms, and those tenants augment the artistic presence at the mills.

Canvassing the Area

One such company is Danashe Inc., a canvas transfer company owned by Dennis Discawicz, which creates convincing reproductions of a variety of artwork for sale to clients across the country. Danashe represents a new era at the mills, once dominated by manufacturing tenants. Discawicz leases 5,000 square feet of space in IOM’s Building 2, and has already forged relationships with the building’s artists, creating reproductions of their original works and providing stretched canvas at a lower cost than retail outlets.

Brush said he hopes to attract more tenants like Danashe, in order to strengthen the mills’ creative identity as well as its economic profile.

“Danashe came into an existing space two years ago that was exactly what they needed,” said Brush, “and we wanted them here; they’re exactly the kind of company we’d like to see more of.”

In fact, Brush said he’s been aggressive in recruiting artists and related businesses to the mills, using the mills’ expansive environment and his own plans to further augment the art scene in Springfield and Western Mass. as a whole as key selling points.

The artists also hold two major shows a year for the public, open studio events anchored by exhibit space in the mills’ Dane Gallery, named for the prior owner. Those and the newly installed Village Art Walk, a series of 42 original paintings all created by IOM artists, specifically for the project, are helping to market the mills as a thriving arts center.

Deanna Chrislip, co-owner of The Design Workshop, a graphic design firm located in the mills that specializes in custom-made storefront signs, said IOM artists have also been actively involved with the creation of Gallery 137, a new art space at 137 Main Street, Indian Orchard, in what used to be Stella’s Diner, a popular local spot. Chrislip said she expects the gallery to call further attention to the businesses in the mills.

“We plan on concentrating on contemporary art,” she said, “and to showcase some well-known artists from across the country. It’s a very unique space that is more visible than we are now, and that’s really going to help the area’s artists be seen.”

Brush has been a supporter of the gallery project, he said, as it further underscores the artistic strengths of the mills and of the surrounding area.

One vestige of the past that Brush hopes to maintain, however, is that of the mills as workspace, not a series of storefronts. While he works to elevate the mills’ presence in Western Mass., Brush said one thing he’s not doing is trying to create a new retail center in the area.

“We’re not a retail environment. We never will be, and we don’t want to be,” he explained. “This is an old knitting mill that is growing into a thriving industrial complex, and we intend to run it, as tight as we can, as an industrial complex with the arts as a driving force.”

Chrislip noted that the space does indeed lend itself to the work artists do, with large, easily convertible space and plenty of natural light.

“My favorite thing about working here is the light these huge, 5 x 9 mill windows allow,” she said. “There’s also a lot more space here than we would have in a Main Street storefront, and we have the network of all of the other businesses in the buildings to work with. We’re friends, and we routinely trade work back and forth.”

In the future, Brush said he hopes to double the number of artists and art-related business at the mills, and to continue to partner with the mills’ tenants to capitalize on a growing arts movement in Western Mass.

To that end, Brush said he expects many new tenants to share a common trait that has already been seen at the mills – that of small businesses making the leap into their first formal, commercial space.

“Another thing that’s great about this property is the incubator aspect,” he said. “For a lot of people, this is their first move out of the basement – and you would think that would make for high attrition rates, but they are actually very low.”

That’s due in part, he said, to the existing climate at the mills, which caters to new and growing businesses in creative fields.

“We do what we have to do to fill space and keep tenants, and in the case of artists and other unique businesses, that means keeping the lines of communication open so we can all see what we can do to help each other,” said Brush, adding that the impetus for doing so is not fueled merely by goodwill.

“Art is a billion-dollar industry in Western Mass.,” he said. “In this area alone, more people are aware of what we’re doing every day. In addition, crime is down, and we’re doing a better job of tying the mills into Main Street. Art is what will bring this area back to life.”

Photo Finish

In the meantime, Brush said he intends to work to attract more diverse, creative businesses to the mills and to create a working environment in which his existing tenants can grow.

“We look out for each other here,” he said. “The property is meant to be a place where honest, hard working people can come to do their thing, and we facilitate that.”

And burglars, beware: when Brush says he works to protect his tenants, he’s being quite literal.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached atstevenson@businesswest.com

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