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by Doug Aikenhead, Michigan Radio Picture Project – 8/4/11

In early 2009, James Marks was looking for a larger building to house his t-shirt and flat screen printing company, VG Kids, which had outgrown several smaller spaces in downtown Ypsilanti since James launched the business in 2000. He looked at a two-story brick building on Railroad Street that had plenty of space, but was divided into dozens of small rooms, not appropriate for VG Kids’ production work, but perfect for artists’ studios.

James Marks is no stranger to business opportunities and challenges. He built VG Kids from a small operation into a substantial enterprise employing 14 people, designing and printing up to 250 t-shirts per hour at full production. Over the next couple of months, James worked with commercial realtor Bill Milliken to negotiate an agreement with the owner of the vacant building.

“The building sat empty for eight years. That makes a property owner a little more willing to listen to unconventional ideas,” James said. “This owner has a certain kind of benevolence and wants to bring good things into the world, and that was a big factor . . . equal parts of his sense of adventure and a down economy creating an opportunity. He’s a good guy and a great businessman.”

James recognized that there weren’t any comparable studio opportunities in Ypsilanti or Ann Arbor. The owner agreed to lease the building to SPUR Studios on a percentage-of-rents basis, and James introduced the idea to artists at the Shadow Art Fair in Ypsilanti in July, 2009 with a public meeting and announcement shortly after that. The demand was immediate and the building was 100 percent occupied within six months.

The building has 33 studios on two floors, with artists occupying the second floor spaces and musicians in the first floor studios. Studio rents start at $200 per month for small spaces and range up to $350 and $400 per month for the largest rooms. James employs two part-time managers to collect rents, keep the building clean, and make sure that everyone abides by the lease conditions. “The managers are great, stand-up guys, the perfect bridge between art and business,” James notes.

SPUR Studios is “the craziest thing I’ve ever done, but it has worked so well,” according to James. So well, in fact, that he is negotiating with the building owner toward opening a second SPUR Studios location, and James already has a waiting list. Interested artists and musicians can contact him at

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