Not long ago, the Collister Shopping Center was another rundown State Street strip mall, its main attraction an aging bowling alley. But after a few million dollars in storefront facelifts and a little native-plant xeriscaping, the shopping center has become an epicenter of urban culture outside of the downtown core.
"We said, 'Well, if we're going to own the property for 20 years, what do we want to do here?' We spent about $2 million renovating the shopping center and basically signed back up all of the tenants that we wanted to keep at the property," said new owner Philip Voorhees, a real estate investor based in California.
Though Voorhees kept more traditional businesses like 20th Century Lanes and Baskin-Robbins, he also set aside a 12,000-square-foot warehouse space for something innovative: Green Chutes artists co-op and Salt Tears Coffeehouse and Noshery.
For the uninitiated, the Salt Tears/Green Chutes concept is hard to describe. It's part art gallery, part co-op, part retail center, part coffeeshop, part restaurant and part event space.
"I think at the start, we didn't really know what was going to happen and, candidly, we thought, well, we might as well try something that will be unique and additive," said Voorhees. "Now it's not a question of if it's going to make it, if it's going to succeed or not, but how big it gets and how it evolves."
On a cool early summer evening, patrons lounged on the Salt Tears patio, sweat beading down glasses of sauvignon blanc and bright orange cheddar dripping off open-faced tuna melts onto beds of bitter, garden-fresh greens. Through a rolled-up garage door, others could be seen wandering through the light-dappled Green Chutes warehouse space, stopping to stare at paint-splashed canvases and running their fingers over knitted wool purses and feathered jewelry.
"I think the restaurant and Green Chutes have played pretty well off of each other," said Salt Tears co-owner Andrea Maricich. "It keeps a captive audience, I think, on both sides ... because of the nature of the two businesses, people stay."
When you walk into the building, the Salt Tears counter and open kitchen are on the right. Modern chairs and tables dot the floor and a row of licorice-red vinyl curtains wall off the cafe from the rest of the expansive Green Chutes space. Patrons can grab a small-batch drip coffee and a muffin and wander past the curtains among the art--everything from abstract splatter paintings and landscape photography to mosaic sculptures and handcrafted stationery, soaps and jewelry.
"I think the thing that's really cool about this environment is that a lot of people that do not go to art galleries are coming here. A lot of it is because of the restaurant ... They are out mingling now among artwork that they normally wouldn't go out and see," said Nancy Zurcher, Green Chutes business manager.
Green Chutes currently has 115 artist members who hang their work in mini-stations scattered around the building. Artists pay $60 a month and have to work 12 hours in the gallery to be a part of the Green Chutes Co-op. If artists don't want to work in the gallery, they pay $100 a month. Members can help vote in new artists at a weekly jurying panel.
"The idea was to create this focal point for the artistic community in Boise ... a location and venue where they could have an address, where they could get mail, where they could have wireless access for Internet, where they could have all of their business services and have their art on display all the time," said Voorhees.
Vintage chaise lounges and couches are scattered around the space, allowing visitors to get comfortable while they peruse magazines or zone out looking at the artwork.
"We don't want to be like anybody else, so it's not a traditional co-op; it's not a traditional gallery," said Zurcher. "So we're taking little pieces from all of those business models and putting them together to make something unique to Boise. It's a fairly inexpensive platform for artists to show their work, but above all, we are a retail store."
But that won't always be the case. Down the road, Green Chutes also hopes to offer working studio space to artist members. Will Hay of Coup Clothing recently moved his business from his garage to the elevated platform at the back of Green Chutes. Hay makes pigeon-themed, custom screenprinted shirts on up-cycled thrift store T-shirts's using environmentally safe, water-based inks.
"They were actually courting a couple of tattoo artists, so I kind of want to make it feel like a tattoo shop because I want to do custom designs with my T-shirts ... basically tattoos on T-shirts," said Hay.
Zurcher hopes that Green Chutes will continue to grow and act as an incubator for local artists and fledgling business owners. Her plan is to have 200 artist members but, she jokes, her goals tend to grow once she reaches them.
"With the way that the economy is now, starting your own business is really, really tough ... When you have a co-op like this, it allows a bunch of people to start their own businesses in one area and share expenses," said Zurcher.
But Voorhees believes, with the upbeat confidence of a career investor, that this concept will do more than just provide artists and artisans with an opportunity to grow their businesses. He thinks it will help launch Boise talent onto the national scene.
"I would be stunned if, in three years, you don't see an artist that's in the Green Chutes stable go to the national level and really start to get some acclaim," said Voorhees. "What we're trying to do is provide this base of experience and exposure so that people can pursue their ambitions to their fullest extent."
But before that can happen, the community has to understand and embrace the Green Chutes/Salt Tears mission.
"It's going to take at least two years if not three years to season the concept ... it's just going to take a long time to change customer perspective and get them to actually make the turn off State Street into Collister to see what's here," said Voorhees.