For 22 years, graphite artist Bill Leavell has owned and operated a graphic design company with clients such as Coca Cola, Bronner Brothers, and The Diamond Warehouse.
But, like many entrepreneurs, he was only able to work his business part-time.
“I had bills to pay. Now, I just let the bills fly out the window,” Leavell said, laughing.
Since July, Leavell has operated a studio full-time thanks to the Stone Mountain Arts Microenterprise Program (SMart), which helps artists start businesses in vacant buildings in the city of Stone Mountain.
The studio, Leavell Graphis, is “something I’ve been trying to get to for a long time,” Leavell said. “I’ve just been in the corporate world for the longest and couldn’t make the time. I just decided to make the time for myself.”
For 14 years, Leavell worked as the creative director for Belk Department stores, successfully creating fashion illustrations and print advertising graphics. He also spent six years working for DeKalb County as an executive administrator and executive director of the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center.
Leavell said the microenterprise program is “forcing me to do what needs to be done, which is marketing, promotion and getting my business under way.”
“It helps with your initiative because you see other artists working,” Leavell said. “Their creativity sparks yours.”
In January 2012, the arts microenterprise program will be presented its third award—this time the Georgia Trendsetter Award from the Georgia Municipal Association and Georgia Trend magazine for most creative program in economic development.
The program has also received the Atlanta Regional Commission’s CREATE Award for regional prosperity and economic development earlier this year. The Georgia Assembly of Community Arts Agencies recognized the DeKalb Council for the Arts for its work in helping establish SMart.
“It’s been a dynamic program,” said Stone Mountain Mayor Patricia Wheeler. “This program has really grown and spurred a lot of interest. We’ve had numerous calls about how this program works.”
The program, funded by a $243,000 community development block grant in 2010, has been approved by the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners to receive another $244,000 grant for next year.
It took the program’s planners two years to develop the plan to use art to redevelop Stone Mountain’s downtown area.
“We looked around and saw the city was dying,” said Daniel Thomas, artistic director for the program. “It was in pretty bad decay.”
Now, artists working in stained glass, quilting, graphic drawings, pottery, wood burning and sculpturing are working in a two block area of Stone Mountain, bringing more visitors into the city.
“We really want this to be East Atlanta’s art destination,” Thomas said.
The SMart program leases and refurbishes empty buildings in the city. Utilities and the average monthly rent of $1,200 are paid by the city of Stone Mountain. The city also spends approximately $15,000 yearly marketing the businesses.
The cost to the artists is $50 per month toward the rent and a 30 percent commission to the city on all products and services sold. The artists must also attend 24 classes in which they are taught basic business skills, incorporation processes, marketing and social media networking.
“We’re trying to teach them to be entrepreneurs,” Thomas said.
Based on similar programs in Alexandria, Va., Kansas City, Mo., and Paducah, Ky., the program allows artists to concentrate on their crafts. City officials hope the artists will open a business in Stone Mountain once they graduate from the program.
The program, which has seven artists and six apprentices, is “really changing the face of Stone Mountain,” Thomas said. Two other art galleries—not related to the SMart program–have opened. “It’s been extremely successful. It’s taken buildings that were in bad shape and empty, and put something of quality in them.”
Debbie Rodgers, who makes stained glass windows, jewelry from copper and enamel and decorative plates, was one of the six original artists in the program. Rodgers said the planning, organizational skills and marketing skills she received from the business classes have been invaluable.
“I can see a big difference,” said Rodgers, an artist for 30 years. “I’ve grown from the program.
“It’s really beneficial to learn the ropes of the arts business.
“Before this, my studio was my garage,” said the Snellville resident who has been in the program for 13 months.