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Arts panel gets pep talk
A cultural affairs officer from Pawtucket, R.I., spells out the ABCs of creating an artist-friendly community.
Regional artists and members of Oil City's downtown arts revitalization committee got a pep talk Saturday morning, learning how and why one expert thinks the city is well suited to become an arts community destination.
Herb Weiss, economic and cultural affairs officer for Pawtucket, R.I., spelled out what he calls the "ABCs of creating an artist-friendly community," listing example after example of how a thriving arts-based culture took hold in less than a decade in the Ocean State.
"We have a lot in common with communities throughout Pennsylvania
who have seen a decline of manufacturing," Weiss said. "Pawtucket,
like many cities, towns and boroughs in your state, is attempting to
reinvent itself through the arts."
The local team is targeting Oil City as a place where artists, who practice across a spectrum of mediums, will want to relocate and fill downtown buildings with arts-based shops, studios, performance and living spaces. The committee has chosen to center the effort around the historic National Transit Building and its yellow annex. The Transit already is home to the Oil Valley Center for the Arts.
"I feel that your city has so much to work with to develop a thriving arts community in western Pennsylvania," Weiss said. "You have a beautiful old building stock that artists would die for that could be live-and-work space. ... You have the river and recreational activities, and you have to take advantage of your assets.
"I see this area as an unpolished gemstone. All it's going to take is for city government to polish that stone," he continued, adamantly saying any successful local arts quest must have "strong support of the mayor, the council and the city manager. ... Each has to have a shared vision of what your arts community is going to be."
Making that community thrive will be the result of key steps, including networking, affordability, the "red-carpet treatment" and customer service.
"Experts say that it takes about 10 years to create a thriving arts and entertainment district," Weiss said. "In just over seven and a half years, Pawtucket has gained both statewide and national recognition for its efforts to build an artist community. ... The secret to Pawtucket's success is tied to affordability (and) advocacy combined with good, old-fashioned customer service that makes it easier for the artists to find space and to solve their problems."
The first step, he said, is to appoint a contact person - or like Oil City is working toward, a "champion" - to work as an advocate for the artist community. That person should be "very visible" to the public.
"As Pawtucket's economic and cultural affairs officer, I serve as a liaison between the city and local businesses, art groups and artists. First and foremost, I am their advocate within the bureaucracy," Weiss said.
"A city, town or borough's arts advocate must become a pipeline of information, sharing knowledge about city, state and federal tax incentives, available properties for lease or for sale for studios and live-work lofts - and available city and state grants to support artist programming," he said.
That person also must have cooperation among municipal departments and a regional tourism council - all of whom must work together on behalf of an artist or arts group.
"We have found that the arts can enhance the quality of life, and more importantly, improve a poor image of a community," Weiss said. "Pawtucket's arts district has become a powerful economic engine that has brought national attention to our city because of how it has revitalized our community. ... To be competitive, you must utilize all of your assets and resources in your attempts to attract artists and create sector companies."
While Pawtucket is a short commute to major cities like Providence and Boston, Weiss does not see Oil City's rural location as harmful - in fact, he sees local history and the small-town feel as drawing cards.
"Make use of promoting your rural location with its history," he said. "Pawtucket makes use of that fact that it's the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Be proud and aggressively promote your history, too. ... And take advantage of being close to interstates 80 and 79. Remember to tout your location near major roads, especially being near the Allegheny River and Oil Creek. These are key assets to be promoted."
The city also would be wise to use affordability in rents to attract artists. "Artists look for affordable space. If Oil City has affordable property, get that message out to larger communities like Erie and Pittsburgh and to smaller ones like Meadville, Ridgway and Warren," he said.
"Yes, Pawtucket really ratchets up the level of customer service it provides to artists, art groups and businesses. All cities should roll out the red carpet."
Weiss detailed an exhaustive list of benefits his city has seen in the nearly eight years since the Rhode Island arts community took hold.
Artists or creative-sector companies have purchased 11 commercial buildings, many vacant, unused and underutilized in the city's historic downtown core, and two live-and-work condominium project are running in Pawtucket's downtown.
"Over 125 people reside in these mills," Weiss said. "More taxes are even coming in to the city's coffers, too. ... Moreover, two new condo projects, when completed, might add another 300 condos in Pawtucket's downtown."
Estimates suggest that the city's arts initiative has filled more than 1 million square feet of space in commercial buildings with life-work lofts, studios and performance space.
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