|By G. Michael Dobbs|
SPRINGFIELD Jeremy Cole, the chair of the Springfield Cultural Council, said that what is lacking in transforming the city's art and culture institutions and organizations into an economic driver is cooperation and a city official designated to implement a mutual marketing plan.
Cole was one of about 30 people who attended "Culture Lead the Economy," a panel discussion funded by an Adams Grant at the Central Library on Wednesday. The John and Abigail Adams Grants are awarded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) to foster and promote cultural assets as a economic development tool.
The attendees heard how artists and city planners in Pittsfield and Worcester have utilized arts and culture to bring in new revenues into those cities.
Barbara Garvey, who was representing Mayor Charles Ryan, explained at the forum that during the administration of Mayor Theodore Dimauro, she and Shera Cohen, who organized the panel discussion, both worked in the Mayor's Office for Cultural Affairs. It was during that time that Riverfront Park was developed, she added.
The Mayor's Office for Cultural Affairs has long since been eliminated from the city government, but Cole believes that it's time to have a person in charge of a cooperative plan for the city's diverse arts and culture scene is "exactly what we need."
He told Reminder Publications that while David Panagore, the city's head of economic development, is doing a "great job, he is spread too thin."
Cole said the problem in Springfield isn't the city not having arts and cultural attractions; it's a lack of cooperation. He said that some of the organizations do coordinate activities with others, but not with all.
Michael Kane, representing the Mount Auburn Group, told the audience the consultants recently completed interviews with 25 people in the local arts scene to assess what are the city's needs. They are working with the city on a proposal to the MCC to fund a large-scale strategic plan for the city.
Kane said at this time in Springfield the major arts organizations are very well known, while the second and third tier groups are not. There isn't an "artistic infrastructure" to help support the efforts of these groups and that there are too many organizations "chasing too few dollars."
A challenge for the city is looking at the two separate demographics in the downtown arts, culture and entertainment scene. The arts and culture institutions draw a primarily white, middle class, and older audience, while the entertainment district attracts a younger, more racially diverse group.
The growing number of downtown restaurants would also be a part of a cultural plan for the city, Kane added.
He questioned if there was a way to make the arts and culture offerings from the city's colleges more accessible and noted there are opportunities for cultural development with the State Street Corridor project, the new Federal Courthouse, the redevelopment of the York Street Jail and the Union Station.
Erin Williams, cultural development officer of the Economic Development Division of the city of Worcester, did admit that trying to get artists to work together in cooperative enterprises is not unlike "herding cats."
She said the Worcester effort came out of 14 arts organizations banding together in the late 1990s to lobby the city for funding and after some initial success the city created the position in 1999 that she now holds.
Williams detailed the projects undertaken by the city include filling vacant storefronts with displays of local artwork; creating "WOO," a special discount card for cultural and arts events distributed to 12,000 college students in the city and developing a new signage system for the city to guide people to institutions and neighborhoods.
"Everyone gets lost in Worcester," she said.
She said the creation of a Web site, www.socialweb.net, as a clearinghouse of activities in and around the city has also drawn young audiences to events.
Deanna Ruffer, of the Department Community Development in Pittsfield, described the city of 40,000 as a "bleeding town" thanks to the departure of General Electric and 13,000 jobs over 20 years ago.
Ruffer said the effort to use art as a force for change started with a grassroots effort by artist Maggie Mailer to fill empty downtown storefronts with artist studios. Over 50 artists took advantage of the program.
James Ruberto, the mayor of Pittsfield, has been both a "visionary and a salesman," according to Ruffer. Under Ruberto's administration, the Colonial Theater was restored, creating an unique performing space, the acclaimed Barrington Stage Company has been brought to the city, and the city has been branded as "Creative Pittsfield."
The results of those developments and events have brought 1,200 to 1,800 visitors to the city's downtown.
Ruffer cautioned the effort hasn't been without its challenges. City officials have worked to create a zoning overlay to plan the redevelopment of the downtown including making sure there is affordable housing.
Safety perception issues are important, she said. She advised making sure streetlights have stronger bulbs wattages in many cities were lowered to save money and to ask businesses to turn on lights at night.