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Lovable but unaffordable: Denton business moves to Ohio

Profile image for By Cindy Breeding
By Cindy Breeding

Laura Drapac and Dave Koen make no bones about it: They love Denton.

The couple said their affection for the city made it that much harder to pull up stakes and move Triple Threat Press, their funky letterpress business, back to Cleveland, Ohio.

The couple recently sat at a table at Shift Coffee, a Locust Street cafe, and mused over their decision. The cafe is within walking distance of their first apartment at Victoria Heights.

“A lot of people are probably like, ‘Why would you go to Cleveland?’ Right? The economy there is bad since the recession, and it doesn’t seem like it makes any kind of sense to go there,” Drapac said.

But they have a support system in Ohio. And the couple could pack up and ship their two letterpresses without too much fuss.

What Drapac and Koen say they don’t have is enough money to make the jump from making their products from their home to an art studio with living quarters attached.

The couple create original designs they print onto cards and moleskin notebooks — a little brown notebook with graph paper sports tools and the words “make all the things.” They need more room to meet the growing number of orders they fill — both for their clients and for the shelves at DIME Store, a shop on Locust Street that sells handmade items made by local and regional makers.

Koen and Drapac are in a painful pinch. They are supplying the growing appetite for handmade products, but they can’t afford to spread out into a bigger workspace, thanks to what feels to them like a local real estate bubble.

The couple came to Denton in 2009 when Drapac started working on a Master of Fine Arts at the University of North Texas. She studied printmaking and worked at the Print Research Institute of North Texas, a center within the UNT College of Visual Arts & Design. When Drapac finished her degree in 2012, she and Koen thought they’d return to Cleveland, where they both have family.

“Our original plan was to come here for school and then move back, but then we started liking the city,” Drapac said, turning to Koen. “My dad caught you saying, ‘We like where we live,’ and I was really happy to hear that, too. We really enjoyed the city.”

Koen said the decision to stay was still mostly practical.

“The other reason we stayed was because Laura was looking for a full-time teaching position,” he said. “And so we didn’t want to move from Denton to back to Cleveland and then move wherever.”

By the time Drapac got her master’s degree, economic forces already were reshaping college hiring practices.

“The problem was, between 2009 and 2012, every college in the United States basically decided that they were only going to hire adjuncts,” Koen said. “So nobody’s hiring full time.”

Drapac said she wasn’t blindsided. She and Koen saw the writing on the wall for university faculty and put their thinking caps on. Denton had begun building its latest brand — which lead to the logo “Denton, Texas. Original. Independent.” The maker movement was building steam, and the couple knew a lot of other artists going into business for themselves.

“I went in with pretty realistic expectations,” Drapac said. “I was doing 27 hours a week at P.R.I.N.T. Press at the bare minimum. And when that wasn’t enough, we started Triple Threat Press as kind of like a way to make money off the press that I thought I’d be using for myself. That was kind of adding to the income a little bit.”

The couple thought they might be able to hitch their art to Drapac’s teaching. Koen is a professional photographer, and until they left for Cleveland, he covered shifts at Mad World Records. With about four jobs between them — and only one car to gas up when they needed it — they figured they could plot out their future.

But then came Denton’s downtown Renaissance. Restaurants, craft beer pubs and specialty shops sprang up around downtown. The downtown A-train and bus station opened. Pedestrians surged into downtown Denton to eat, drink, shop and watch free concerts.

Commercial rental rates spiked.

“We’ve been working out of the bedroom, and we need to expand, but with rental costs being so high, we have no way that we can afford our apartment and a studio and everything we need to expand our business,” Koen said. “We could find a warehouse in Krum, but we don’t want to drive — and we only have one car.

“So to try to find something that’s not even within walking distance, but close enough to Denton so that we could both do it, is so cost prohibitive that there’s no way that we could expand our business without some cash infusion.”

The couple said they made inquiries about any space that posted a rental sign. Competition for space is hot, they said.

“There was one space nearby that was about to be available, and Laura and I got with five other artists to see if we might be able to do something as a collective,” Koen said. “Then we found out that, just to finish out the space — put up dry wall, get the plumbing and electric — was $100,000. There was no way.”

Julie Glover, the city’s downtown development director, said there’s been a lot of discussion on how to plan for the kind of spaces artists are keen to occupy.

“We’re looking at trying to expand the downtown grant program to include some assistance for entrepreneurs,” Glover said. “But [city] council hasn’t weighed in yet. As downtown has developed, rents have gone up. I think there are areas of town that are still affordable, but may be less desirable to artists and entrepreneurs.”

Downtown Denton is zoned for residential and commercial occupancy, Glover said, and city officials are hoping the Railyard, a mixed-use development at 608 E. Hickory St., might meet some of the needs artists and makers have.

Tracy Bays-Boothe, the executive director of the Greater Denton Arts Council, said the GDAC is working to support more artists.

On Friday, the council announced recipients of micro-grants, a new program it’s developing.

“We really wanted to help that individual artist, who doesn’t have the support of a 501c3 [nonprofit] behind them,” she said.

Musicians, artists and dancers applied for grants up to $500. Forty-six applications came in for the grants, Bays-Boothe said. Individuals and collectives won grants.

The GDAC’s mission is to support arts nonprofits through grants, and the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center hosts more than 200 meetings, workshops, events and rehearsals each year.

Bays-Boothe said the GDAC wouldn’t exist if the city didn’t lease the arts center to it for $1 per year. The arts center is the only space the organization has, and Bays-Boothe said the GDAC actively is trying to redefine how the space is used so more artists and citizens come through the doors.

Drapac said parts of Cleveland’s appeal are city and community projects that allow artists to live and work in the city for affordable rates.

“Denton says it’s a town for creative people and that it supports the arts,” Drapac said. “But in Denton, you can’t start at nothing. You have to start at $50,000. And we’re not asking for free things. We’re looking for mixed-use zoning, maybe a multi-use space for $2,000 where you can walk upstairs and have a small place to live and a small kitchen.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877 and via Twitter at @LBreedingDRC.