The growth of one of Asheville’s oldest breweries is leaving a beloved arts and performance venue in search of a new home.
Once Toy Boat Community Art Space’s lease is up at the end of January, the group must vacate the space it occupies at 101 Fairview Road, Suite B, to make way for an expansion by French Broad River Brewery. Paul Casey, who owns French Broad and the building with his wife Sarah, shared the news with Toy Boat co-founder Nina Ruffini in August.
“In one of the initial conversations there was talk about what were our plans with the brewery. I did say at that time that we felt like we were going to eventually grow into wanting the Toy Boat space, but [it] probably was not going to be for another 12-18 months,” Casey says. “And then, kind of a subsequent conversation, probably about a month later, we sort of reversed course and felt like expansion was happening a little bit faster than we thought.”
The plan had been to renovate French Broad’s current taproom and get it up to what Casey calls “the Asheville standard.” On further consideration, that approach was deemed a short-term solution for a longer-term vision. The decision was then made to accelerate growth plans into the Toy Boat space, which will house an entirely new taproom, ideally by the end of spring or beginning of summer 2018. The brewhouse will also grow to increase production.
“We love the existing tap room environment and we have a strong following for that space,” Casey says. “Our future plans are for expansion purposes, not for replacement purposes. We plan on having the two spaces joined so that our patrons will have options.”
French Broad’s decision comes at a time when Ruffini says Toy Boat was already in a transitional phase, looking to repaint the 4,000 square foot space and generally turn a new corner. Founded in 2012, the DIY event space has become home to such events as Ten-Minute Movies and Tranzmission Prison Projects and Prison Books’ Halloween Cover Band Show benefit, as well as the experimental productions of Anam Cara Theater Company and the juggling troupe Forty Fingers and a Missing Tooth.
“[Toy Boat] came from The Runaway Circus — a bunch of people who worked tirelessly to put on shows that they volunteered to do because they love to do it and they put on shows to raise money to give to other people,” Ruffini says. “And we had a blast. We had a great following. … We never went into this thinking, ‘Let’s make a bunch of profit’ — and we didn’t, but we’re still here and it’s been five and a half years and it just doesn’t feel fair.”
She continues, “So many people are sad because Toy Boat is a home and a safe space and we serve underserved communities and we hold benefits and we teach after-school classes. … People have their Christmas parties here.” There are not many such spaces in Asheville, Ruffini notes.
Casey stresses that French Broad’s expansion is not forcing Toy Boat to close, but acknowledges that the brewery’s plans are “putting [Toy Boat] in a situation where they’ve got to come up with another space” and “may be causing them some angst.” In his conversations with Ruffini, he says he raised the possibility of utilizing “some warehouse space in the back part of the building” in need of “a little bit of upfitting,” but that it was determined the alternative spot wasn’t a realistic option.
“Our decision is not an indication that we don’t support the community arts and the arts space or performing arts in Asheville or any other community. It’s not based on personal beliefs or anything like that. It’s a business decision,” Casey says. “It appears Toy Boat has a very strong following and it seems that if they go find other space,” that community will move with the arts organization.
Ruffini says that Casey , who is based in Chapel Hill, doesn’t understand the Asheville community — specifically what a volunteer organization like Toy Boat can afford in an expensive real estate market and the rarity of the space it provides for local groups. She adds that prior landlord Bill Goacher had kept Toy Boat’s rent low — she currently pays $1,800 per month — and the group passed the savings on to its collaborators, frequently giving all entry fees from benefits to nonprofit partners. She also sees a missed opportunity for Casey to explore a partnership with Toy Boat, taking the time to get to know more about its mission and reap the benefits of aligning with the Asheville arts community.
“It’s just sad that he wouldn’t be like, ‘Cool, let’s see what you guys do and who you are for a while,’” she says.
While Ruffini has begun looking at available venues, ideally with high ceilings for acrobatics and aerials like the present lodgings, she’s so far only found ones that offer roughly half of Toy Boat’s current room at a higher cost, or are located a considerable distance beyond the city limits. A 20-year resident of Asheville, she views the brewery expansion as the latest in a series of business decisions that come at the expense of the local arts community.
“We’re like, ‘We’re a town that supports the arts,’ and I’m not sure that we are doing that,” Ruffini says. “Everything that’s cool and everything people want to take a picture of and want to experience when they come to Asheville is going to be gone. I’ve thought about leaving a lot. Especially when this happened, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m done.’”
Deflated as the announcement made Ruffini feel, subsequent communication with the groups that use the Toy Boat space have her optimistic for the future. She wants to turn Toy Boat’s fate into a bigger community conversation and team with allies to ensure that her organization will thrive elsewhere.
“Now that it’s happened, it’s sort of a wake-up call … about what we as individuals give to our community and what our community gives back,” Ruffini says. “I want to focus on what the community needs, and I want to have that community’s support and input.”