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Westfield State to GALVANIZE downtown

By Katelyn Gendron
Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD Creating an arts district in conjunction with college and city resources revitalized the downtown's in Savannah, Ga., and Providence, R.I., so why not Westfield?

Last week, William Rawn Associates, Architects Inc. of Boston presented their downtown development proposals to Westfield State College (WSC) personnel and city officials. Thirteen private businesses funded the two-month $100,000 study in order to gauge the potential development opportunities that will galvanize the city's downtown.

William Rawn of William Rawn Associates, Architects Inc., explained that the proposal included five guiding principles for integrating the arts into the city's fabric along with preliminary development over the next five years. WSC will bring an added financial resource to the area when a 1,000-bed dormitory is completed. WSC President Dr. Evan Dobelle said he hopes to have students living in the dorm by 2010.

"We've been trying to pigeonhole downtown and this vision is a [viable] opportunity," City Council President Brian Sullivan said. He added that this plan, as opposed to others in the past, begins with bringing students with disposable incomes downtown in conjunction with business development, rather than applying the "if we build it, they will come" philosophy.

"[The story of downtown revitalization has] an ever-changing plot but the same premise," Sullivan said. Mayor Michael Boulanger agreed. He added that past proposals "hadn't worked [to rejuvenate the area because] it was putting the chicken before the egg."

He explained that the partnership between the city and WSC since Dobelle's appointment as president earlier this year has produced great progress toward tangible revitalization.

"The arts can spark development," Rawn said. "The linchpin of this is the housing [to] get students living downtown is an economic driver . We all know there are some problems downtown but [Westfield] has a building fabric [already in existence]."

He explained that the proposal is designed to form a concentrated area for arts education and services, along with storefront business and second-story housing on Elm Street and within the Westfield Business Improvement District.

"We're trying to show a vision [where] almost any building on Elm Street can be a part of this," Rawn said. He added that several design proposals have been drafted which include new development coupled with building renovations to create a movie and music theater, recital hall, additional performing arts venues, a book store, storefront rehearsal space and an intermodal transportation center.

"As government support for the arts decline, colleges are partnering with artists [to provide affordable rehearsal and performance venues]," Gideon Lester, director of the American Repretory Theatre in Cambridge, said. "I see potential [here]. We're proposing an arts district [to] turn downtown Westfield [into] a destination."

When asked why this proposal was a more viable option for the downtown economy as opposed to past plans, Dobelle replied, "We're going downtown with up to 1,000 beds and have a critical mass of clients [to bring] to downtown."

He added that WSC students already spend approximately $27,000 in OWL Bucks dining dollars with participating downtown vendors each month.

Rawn noted that a cost study of the potential economic impact will be completed in 2009.