At mid-day, the sound of hammers striking tile and power drills can be heard for a two block radius around the intersection of Main Street and Hackberry in McAllen. A cloud of thick, angry dust alerts passersby that a major construction project is underway at the site, but through the haze is the real story: The McAllen Art Village is much more than an ordinary development - at least that's what the people behind the project say.
At about 27,000 square feet, the Art Village's ambitions match its sprawling size. Developer Alonzo Cantu is creating the city's first large scale investment in to the budding Arts District, and it's a mammoth task that must be done with the utmost care if the project is to reach its full potential and serve the community, he said. "A lot of people love the Valley and love McAllen. They just want more things to do when they come down here," he said. "We need more of those things to do, entertainment and fine arts, not just bars and restaurants."
Whether it's a small decision like choosing the perfect lighting for the Tuscan-style building or a delicate task like picking the first lucky tenants, nothing is being taken lightly. That's the approach that will make the project the anchor of the area, Cantu said.
At a glance, the project seems to be a strip mall with an arts focus, but that's where the likeness to typical developments in the Valley ends. Cantu's vision came into focus about a year ago, while he and his wife Yolanda were in the market for a space in the Arts District to relocate her business,
McAllen Stained Glass. When he found the property, his idea came quickly - he wanted to create a community of art, a fusion of mediums both mainstream and lesser known.
Yolanda Cantu, a glass artist, estimates that 30 to 40 businesses and individuals - including photographers, a custom ceramics maker, a dance studio and music teachers - have approached Cantu Construction about acquiring spaces in Art Village, the smallest of which are 300 square feet. But Alonzo Cantu said when the time comes to choose from the prospective tenants, they're"going to be selective."
"We want to make sure it's a good blend of the arts," he said. "They have to be somehow in the arts and [we're going to) try not to get the same type of people who would be competing against each other."Taking a cue from his Uptown Plaza development, located at 4500 N. 10th St. in McAllen, preference will be given to local businesses over big retailers. He hopes to have the first tenant moved in by March 1.
"I would prefer the local without a doubt, provided they have a track record .... I'd like someone who has a track record and is going to be there a while because we don't want to be changing signs too often," he said with a laugh.
And because education is high on Yolanda Cantu's list of priorities for the facility, they will be looking for retailers who go beyond the traditional. "We're looking for artists who won't just display their art, but also teach classes and inform the community in their medium," said Cantu, who teaches stained glass, etching, sandblasting and mosaic.
Long before a single beam was erected at the Art Village site, the gallery caddy corner to the property, Nuevo Santander, was the go-to venue for professional artists from the Valley and beyond who wanted to display their work, a demand driven largely by McAllen's Art Walks.
For artist Reefka, who had her works exhibited at Nuevo Santander during the last Art Walk, the Art Village represents a crucial opportunity for people like herself who struggle to secure top-of-the-line exhibit spots.
"I'd like to see more well-run professional galleries ... that really know how to reach out and sell the work," she said. "I'd like to see somewhere with viewing rooms to sit with clients and show the art work."
But despite a call from many gallery owners and artist exhibitors for high-end art spaces, Alonzo Cantu said the center won't turn its cheek to the less-than-highbrow. Professional artists can secure spaces in the complex. Novices, who previously had few venue options to sell their work, can make use of the community hall area. And though he doesn't think the exhibition hall will "be a money-making deal," Cantu said it will be worth having around for lesser known artists who struggle financially.
"I want to give them [novice artists) the opportunity to sell and make money," he said.
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
With the construction of Art Village, Cantu has placed his faith in the Arts District. The permanent structure is the antithesis of what Valley artists once had to settle for -small spaces located in the corners of existing store and rental spaces. It's here to stay. For that reason, Cantu said he thinks McAllen needs to do its part as well.
He realized this as he was deciding what lighting to use at Art Village.
"I was going to try and find out what kind of lighting they were going to use so I could use the same kind, but it doesn't seem like they've got their act together yet," he said. He admitted that he intends to "put a little pressure on the city" to begin a lighting project.
For now, Art Village is setting the tone of the district with an "old colonial-style lighting," according to Laura Warren, president of Warren Group Architects, which is heading the project.
"Right now, the [Texas Department of Transportation) lighting is pretty standard. So what we're going to do is create a lighting fixture that will distinguish the Art District," she said." (Cantu's) instructions were to 'do it right or I don't want to bother at all."
The road between vision and execution is a painstaking process, especially for the detail oriented Cantu. But a beautiful building will remain just that unless people utilize it and transform it into a destination. Appearance will have little bearing on the project's success in the end, Cantu said.
"Support the artists and their hard-work," he said. "There are a lot of talented people here in the Valley, they just need to be exposed .... They just need a venue to show it."
With the shell of the building about 80 percent complete and the target move-in date fast approaching, Warren is confident the venue will remain on schedule.
When Cantu decides to do something, Warren says, "It always gets done."