Rhizome DC announces plans to purchase a building, launches community financing push

Rhizome DC, home base for the city’s DIY arts community, has announced plans to purchase an empty storefront in Shepherd Park, thanks in part to a large city grant.

The news seemed to answer longstanding questions about the future of this precarious Takoma Park venue — but it comes with uncertainties of its own: namely, whether the venue’s supporters will be able to raise the remaining money it needs to buy the new home.

The fate of Rhizome’s current Takoma Park location has been in limbo since 2020, when the building’s owners announced that a contract was in place to sell the building — and its double lot — to a developer. Rhizome’s core team soon began searching for affordable space nearby.

On Tuesday night, the venue’s program director, Layne Garrett, announced at a town hall meeting that the venue had found an ideal new location. Rhizome, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has entered into a tentative deal to buy a building at 7733 Alaska Ave. NW, just off Georgia Avenue, less than a block from the D.C.-Maryland border and one mile away from its current location.

If it goes through, Rhizome would become one of the all-too-few performing arts venues in D.C. that own their own buildings. This would represent a massive step for the scrappy, largely volunteer-run organization, Garrett said.

“Rhizome is a labor of love,” he said, while crediting his team’s recent progress to “the care and dedication that so many people put into the space – into organizing events, curating exhibits, staffing events and showing up for work days.”

Also making these plans possible is a $350,000 D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH) grant, received late last year. But that grant alone won’t be enough. Rhizome will need to come up with hundreds of thousands more to match the DCCAH loan, Garrett said.

At the meeting, which was held live at Rhizome and synchronously via Zoom, he said the organization had been unable to secure a loan from a major bank. Therefore, the venue will be utilizing a community financing model to cover much of the remaining cost.

Rhizome’s board plans to launch a GoFundMe campaign and will be offering an innovative style of community loans, Garrett announced. Taken together, the city grant, community donations and loans would allow this entire capital campaign to remain independent of a major financial institution.

But there is an element of urgency: With only a few months left to spend the DCCAH grant funds, Rhizome’s board of trustees will be looking to raise enough via donations and loans to feel confident that its community will be able to fund the entire project in the months and years ahead. “We need to have confidence soon that it’s going to work, otherwise we have to step back and regroup,” Garrett said Tuesday in response to a town-hall participant’s question.

Rhizome DC opened in spring 2015, at 6950 Maple St. NW, a single-family-style house two blocks from the Takoma Metro station. Hosting music, dance, sound art performances and visual art exhibitions, Rhizome immediately became an indispensable institution in a city that seems perpetually starved for spaces in which to present experimental art. (Union Arts in Northeast D.C. was in the process of closing; without Rhizome, this would have left the nation’s capital without a dedicated DIY venue hosting performances multiple nights a week.) Apartment buildings had already begun to sprout up in the formerly empty lots surrounding Rhizome when, in August 2020, word spread that plans were being hatched to sell the Maple Street house, and the roughly half-acre lot it stands on, to a low-income housing developer.

At the time, Rhizome secured a commitment from the developer to give the venue at least six months after the closing date of the contract to vacate the house, allowing the collective to book shows without worrying they would have to cancel them.

Since that initial announcement over three years ago, the developer has yet to break ground on the project, leaving Rhizome as a house without a stable home. Garrett reiterated on Tuesday that the team’s goal remains keeping the original Maple Street location operational as long as possible. Eventual development and displacement appear inevitable, however.

The current home of Rhizome DC at 6950 Maple St. NW. Courtesy Rhizome DC

The DCCAH grant would account for close to half the costs of buying and outfitting the property at 7733 Alaska Ave. The remaining gap of nearly $400,000 presents a particular difficulty given that, like nearly every experimental DIY venue in existence, Rhizome tends to see negative cash flow. (It prioritizes artist compensation and cost-accessible shows over netting revenue. Garrett acknowledged on Tuesday that when Covid-19 grants had been widely available in 2020 and 2021, the venue increased its payments to artists.) This means that Rhizome’s books are generally unappealing to major lending institutions, and no bank has been willing to loan Rhizome the money needed to secure a mortgage for the building.

Rather than rely on one large lender, Rhizome is offering to take out interest-paying loans from members of its community in order to fund the purchase of a building. The operations of the organization in its new building will go toward paying off the loans. Lenders will be allowed to set their own loan terms on a range from 10 to 15 years, with between 0% and 5% APR. Given the administrative costs associated with servicing loans, only lenders of $2,500 and above will be able to participate.

At the town-hall event Tuesday night, the Rhizome team distributed a digital survey gauging community members’ interest in buying a loan as part of the communiy financing plan. Where most organizations may have viewed the banks’ rejection as a dead-end, the collective has come to see it as an opportunity to maintain financial control over their own fate. “Ultimately it feels, hopefully, like a bit of a gift,” Garrett said.

Read a synopsis of the meeting here; watch the full meeting here. Individuals interested in participating in the community financing drive can read more and fill out an interest form here.

Disclosure: Abram Mamet, the author of this article and CapitalBop’s assistant editor, is a frequent Rhizome performer and show organizer. CapitalBop has also presented numerous shows at Rhizome over the years, including hosting the DC Jazz Loft series there in 2018-19. 



About Abram Mamet

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Abram Mamet, CapitalBop's assistant editor, is a musician and writer living in Mt. Rainier, MD. You can hear him on French horn leading a jam session every Wednesday at metrobar in NE D.C.

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