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On April 26, 1995, the first Walmart Super Center in Western New York opened for business in Springville, a village of about 4,000 near the southern border of Erie County.

In the years that followed, the shops and businesses on Springville's main drag struggled to compete with the mega-retailer. As business fell off, many shops closed their doors. And the community, once centered around the commercial activity of a thriving Main Street, suffered too.

Today, nearly half of the physical spaces in the village's business district on Main Street sit vacant or disused, each one a run-down reminder of the village's changed economy and way of life.

But the empty space in the village's communal life has begun to swell with new energy. And not because of any new store or business, but because of a project launched by the community more than a decade ago in order to repair itself.

The Springville Center for the Arts, an institution out to revitalize the community of Springville and its surrounding towns and villages one theater production and art exhibition at a time, has come into its own as an institution unique among Western New York cultural organizations.

Headquartered in a former Baptist Church across from Town Hall a block off Main Street, the center, under executive director and longtime Springville resident Seth Wochensky, has become a bustling center of cultural activity and an enormous success story in a town that has lately had few of them to boast.

It is in the midst of a $2 million expansion project that will see the restoration and renovation of its building and the addition of new classroom space for its growing educational programs.

At the same time, another Western New York native, Richard Vanover, has relocated his sculpture prototyping business from Los Angeles to Springville and has opened a popular gallery in the heart of the village that draws both local and national artists.

Together, Wochensky and Vanover, along with a growing contingent of Springville-area artists and arts supporters, have created a budding cultural scene in the village that would surprise even the most jaded Buffalo scenester.

And that scene is poised to grow significantly in the near future.

"Just in the last year I've been open, it's been remarkable, the people and the local talent who are interested in stuff happening here," said Vanover, who worked as a sculptor and special effects artist in Los Angeles and launched his own studio before returning home to be closer to his parents. "You have the land. There's tons of vacant buildings. There's people that want to rent them here. You can do your artwork -- I just think it has so much potential, and the art thing is clickin' right now."

>Can-do attitude

On a Saturday night in early March, the clickin' of Springville's arts scene was hard to ignore.

Around 7 p.m., the SCA's modest gallery space began to flood with people who had come to see the work of Buffalo-based artist Max Collins, who wheat-pastes large-scale photographs onto unexpected surfaces like wooden fences and other found objects.

Later that evening, the center would present an evening of short films curated and introduced by Levi Abrino, the editor of last year's Oscar-winning short "God of Love" whose own film, "Little Horses," is now picking up plenty of praise on the festival circuit.

Patrons schmoozed in the gallery with wine glasses in hand, casually chatting up the artists, catching up on the day's news and musing over the art on the walls.

Could this be Springville?

A few years ago, maybe not. But thanks to the work of Wochensky, the active SCA board and people like Vanover who are working to turn Springville into a cultural destination, the arts have become a major part of the community's fabric.

The Springville Center for the Arts was launched in 1998 in a former shoe store on Main Street (another victim of the age of Walmart) as a project of the Springville Players, a community theater group. When it started, its organizers all agree, the community immediately embraced it.

"I think it took everybody by surprise," Wochensky said. "It was one of those 'build it and they will come' things. Artists came out of the woodwork. There was never sort of a galvanizing point for the arts community and suddenly there was, and it just took off."

Across the next decade, the SCA's programs grew steadily in diversity and attendance, until it became clear that a new space was needed. So the board took up a collection to purchase the village's old Baptist church, which officially opened as the SCA's new headquarters in 2007.

"We raised $100,000 from the community within three months, and we never missed a beat. We closed over there, we opened over here, and this place was a disaster," Wochensky said, gesturing toward the center's 100-seat theater space in the church's main worship hall. "It's still a disaster, but it was really a disaster then. We had an army of volunteers in here taking stuff apart. This space was just filled with everything from old broken fridges to lathe."

Now it's filled with people like Rick Manzone, a manager at the local Tops who was roped into performing in a play in 1998 and is now a fixture on the center's stage, and Dave Danielson, another actor who counts the center as a saving grace in his life.

"What this place means to me -- it really kind of transformed my life, actually," Danielson said. "It felt like I was on this island in the middle of all this nothingness, and I found this place and it gave me a focus, and helped me through a lot of things in my life. It really gave me something to, maybe not to live for -- but it's spiritual for me. It's spiritual wholeness. It gives me that."

Danielson's story is by no means unique. There are plenty of men, women and children from the four-county swath of rural land that the SCA covers, many with no previous interest or expertise in the arts, who have found a sense of purpose and community at the arts center that they could not find anywhere else.

Mimo Fried, a former executive director of the center and current volunteer, reflected on the center's importance to the area.

"What does it mean to Springville?" she said, repeating a reporter's question. "I think it's saved some lives. It's hard if you're not a sports person, if you're not a church person. It's created a real community that wasn't there before."

For Kim Higgins, whose son Nathanial studies theater at Niagara University and whose daughter Paige is an aspiring photographer, Springville's community and the SCA has given her children the sort of encouragement few small towns could offer.

"So many times outside this community, they've gotten, 'Why would you go into that? You're never going to get a job.' But everybody here has been like, 'You can do this, you go, go, go.' We totally cultivated his love for theater here, took it out a little bit further and now that's what he's doing."

>Changing perceptions

At Vanover Fine Arts, a large, gleaming gallery space on Main Street, Richard Vanover has created yet another unlikely focal point for the growing Springville art community. Since opening in 2010, the gallery has hosted a dozen exhibitions ranging from low-brow West Coast art to its current show, a collection of photographs shot by residents of an Orchard Park assisted living facility at nearby Newton Farm.

When he first opened, Vanover said, "I'd get young people walking by, and they come in and they're like, 'Woah, who has the balls to open a gallery in Springville?' "

"I think the energy here, it's hard to put into words because there's so much creativity," Vanover said. "It's like there's all this hidden stuff out here. But I think people, they hear 'Springville' and they think, 'Ugh, that hick town?'"

The perception may not stay that way for long. Vanover and Wochensky are working together on plans to turn one of the town's vacant buildings into an art bar and music space. The Center for the Arts is hosting more international artists and musicians -- including an upcoming acoustic music series featuring internationally known guitarists -- and its building renovation and expansion is well under way.

Springville, that tiny town in the Southern Tier hitherto known -- if it was known at all -- as the home of the Super Walmart, has given itself a brand new image.

"To me, the illustration here is that the arts exist everywhere, literally, and we just have been good at building a galvanizing point," Wochensky said. "In a lot of ways what we're doing is community building, but the arts are kind of the crux of it. It's the key that's unlocking the door."

Of the SCA, Wochensky continued, "I think you could pick it up and put it anywhere. There should be arts centers all over the place, you know? It's not like there are tons of artists in comparison to other areas. If anything, it was known as a cow town, but I think we're proving that the arts can flourish anywhere."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com