With its three stories of storefronts, a historic mill and a body of water so picturesque it’s routinely used as a prom-photo backdrop, Tackett’s Mill doesn’t look much like a typical strip mall.
The Woodbridge shopping center can’t subsist on charm, though. With 14 vacant shops under the scenic wooden eaves, the operators hope to reinvent it — this time as a mecca for art.
The people who operate the center and plan to revive it speak enthusiastically about how they would like to fill the vacant spaces. A dance studio. A theater. A gallery and studio space for the artists who exhibit their work there. Photography. Sculpture. Poetry and music, indoors and outdoors.
“We definitely have a vision that we want this to be a place where something is always happening, where people can say, ‘I’m bored. I know! Let’s go to Tackett’s Mill,’ ” said Nancy Kyme, secretary-
treasurer for the company that operates the center.
Since the 1970s, when the mill was first uprooted from Stafford and planted along the waters of a pretty stormwater reservoir in Woodbridge, Tackett’s Mill has seen its fortunes shaped by the rapid evolution of retail stores. Once a vibrant home to local businesses, it saw them decamp one by one for the mammoth Potomac Mills complex and for strip malls with more modern designs and lower upkeep costs.
The owners changed their focus from stores to offices. But the 2008 financial crisis shuttered many of those, and the growth of Internet retail took another big bite out of the center’s tenant pool.
The latest plan, Kyme said, calls for using a now-empty 5,500-square-foot space as a nonprofit arts center, the centerpiece of the revived complex. The center would house eight to 10 rent-free studios for young artists, who would be granted temporary residencies. Kyme said that construction on the studios will begin by the end of the year.
Allen McBride, the broker for the shopping center, said that the artists will have access to on-site business seminars and other professional development opportunities, in the hope that they become paying tenants in other Tackett’s Mill spaces after their residencies end.
“Maybe they’ll be leasing space from us. We’re growing our future tenants,” McBride said.
One of the vacant spaces has been converted into an art studio rented by Nick Zimbro, a painter native to the area who has previously worked in Philadelphia and at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton. McBride and Kyme are talking to another resident about creating a theater that would seat at least 100 people in a large third-story space.
Kyme said a weekly farmers market will get off the ground by July. The Youth Orchestras of Prince William moved its office to Tackett’s Mill last month, Kyme said, and Ruth Johnsen, the owner of Edgemoor Art Studio, a children’s art studio nearby, plans to move her business into the space this month.
“This Tackett’s Mill is so unique. It could be vibrant, with the farmers market and the artists and the lake,” Johnsen said. “I was like, ‘This is the place!’ Because you just know as a visual artist where something needs to be. I feel like it’s sort of like when Monet and Manet and Seurat all got together — everyone was black and white, and these color people all got together. I feel like this place is going to burst forth. I actually feel like this place has it.”
Johnsen said that she thought the many residents of eastern Prince William who work in the District and Arlington would clamor for a local arts center. “They want this part of Prince William County to be somewhere where they can have opportunities for art, and see sculpture, and put their kids in performing arts classes,” she said.
Kyme agreed. “They’re tired of the chains and the look-alikes, and they want quality. . . . They want culture on the weekends.”
But she said that recruiting the businesses she hopes will accompany the art studios — such as a restaurant for the elegant 7,000-square-foot space that has been unoccupied for at least seven years — has been challenging so far.
“It’s tough, because a lot of them won’t come until you have the crowd. And the crowd won’t come until you have something for them to do.”