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ON THE SCENE: Re-imagining our rural downtowns in the North Country

September 1, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Using the arts to help turn around a community was the topic of "The Creative Economy: Re-Imagining our Rural Downtowns," a two-part presentation held at the Harrietstown Town Hall in Saranac Lake on Tuesday, Aug. 22.

Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, was the lead presenter. He described his life's work as "somehow being about dying towns." He exemplified this unanticipated career through describing how Proctors Theatre led the revitalization of Schenectady.

I first met Morris back in 1978, he and I then elected to the board of the Alliance of New York State Arts Councils. I represented Dutchess County, and he represented Chautauqua County and Jamestown. Back then, Jamestown was dying. Main Street was littered with empty storefronts and abandoned properties. Many members of the community were depressed; they felt their community had hit rock bottom. On that account, Morris agreed, the difference was he saw it a launching pad to rebuild the city. Despair was not then and has never been part of his mind set.

Article Photos

Philip Morris, left, and Aaron Woolf
(Photo provided β€” Naj Wikoff)

He started by asking the city to donate the closed businesses to his arts organization and then turned them around into a variety of cultural spaces. He knew that arts people would do most anything to get spaces on the cheap - in this case, putting in sweat equity to fix up the properties. The exhibitions and performances that they soon started hosting began attracting people back downtown, which, in turn, inspired others to open restaurants and similar businesses that catered to the people flowing into the city.

In his mind, every community has hidden assets, and one of the biggest assets was that Lucille Ball had grown up in Jamestown. Therefore, Morris turned one of the properties into the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum & Center for Comedy, which has gone on to host an annual comedy festival. Since then, a replica of the studio of where they staged their popular TV shows has been created, her birthplace and childhood home have become added attractions, and the center expanded.

Another asset was that the naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, one of the founders of the 20th century environmental movement, is from Jamestown. It's no surprise that the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History has since been established in Jamestown. Morris's challenge to the large crowd attending his Aug. 22 talk in Saranac Lake was to ask themselves about the authentic assets of their village and to think how they can use them to breathe life into their communities.

Morris's approach is to be authentic and audacious He likes to think big and out of the box. In his mind, money is constantly flowing by outside the window. A big, compelling idea will enable one to stick one's hand out the window and divert some of that money into one's community.

A local example of tapping into a community asset is the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay. The asset is that the town was once a destination for entertainment; the Land of Makebelieve, created by artist Arto Monaco, was the draw. The Recovery Lounge captures that same energy. The only difference is Arto's place was for kids, and the Recovery Lounge is for adults. Artistic director Scott Renderer taps into the performer in us all.

When Morris arrived in Schenectady, he was shocked by the level of devastation. He couldn't believe that the elected, civic, and business leaders, and the residents, had let it get into such a sorry state. His first question was, "What's special about Schenectady?" One feature that struck him was that "the Capital region is one suburb surrounded by four cities (Schenectady, Albany, Troy, and Saratoga). Everybody lives in the middle." Another was that outside the four cities is the most reforested land in the country, a region that includes the Catskills and Adirondacks. He realized that working together, the four cities had the potential of becoming a model for containing urban growth.

Why does that matter? By contrast, Houston's zoning laws encourage unrestricted growth, which has led to the paving of hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that can no longer absorb rainfall resulting in increased flooding when it rains, compounding the impact storms like Hurricane Harvey. Morris realized that to protect people's access to the reforested lands, he needed to make the core of his city work. And to achieve that goal, he needed the urban, suburban and rural people surrounding Schenectady to work together. To him, everyone matters; therefore, Proctors had to work collaboratively.

To that end, like in Jamestown, the Proctors's board recognized they had to help rebuild the downtown - an area so destitute that two Dollar Stores closed for lack of business. Their first step was to propose providing heat and cooling to all businesses in about an eight-block area. Using a central system, they offered heat and cooling for 25 percent less than the businesses were currently paying, a rate that made doing business in Schenectady more attractive while reducing the theater's heating/cooling costs to zero.

"We had to engage people's creativity," said Morris. "All people are creative. We have to engage their creativity in such a way that their creativity links, bonds, and builds community. You have to build connections and conversations that lead to other connections and conversations. It's an endless effort of learning what skills are in your backyard and then using and leveraging them. Now Schenectady has 48 restaurants, an unbelievable number of new apartments and level of activity day and night, seven days a week. Plus, we now attract over 750,000 paid attendees to Proctors annually."

"I think the coalescence of differing forces is the way to go," said Lake Placid artist Peter Seward, a co-founder of the Hobofest music event held every Labor Day weekend in Saranac Lake. "I think it's our collective mission to connect our communities."

"The town of Jay has three art centers, the Tahawus Center, the Recovery Lounge and the Ward Theatre," said Fred Balzac, of Jay, operations manager at the Adirondack Film Society in Lake Placid. "I suspect there is very little cooperation between them, and with the town board. I think getting them all working together is our opportunity."

By chance, two days later, representatives of the Lake Placid arts and humanities agencies met over lunch to discuss increased collaboration among themselves, and with the broad cross-section of stakeholders from educational institutions to lodging facilities and engines like the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism and the state Olympic Regional Development Authority. This meeting and the one in Saranac Lake were follow-ups to a regionwide gathering of arts agencies organized by ADK Action held at the Lake Placid Conference Center, the work of the Adirondack Network of Nonprofits, and the recent delegation of arts and humanities agencies that pitched our congressional leadership and Speaker Paul Ryan in support of federal support for the arts.

"I'd like to see all of us in the arts work together to draw people to our communities," said Jill Choate Beier, president of the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. "We need to help people understand we have an environment filled with a rich array of artistic and cultural events and they are an important economic driver."



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