Compared with other regions across New York State, Western New York may not have clinched the biggest prize in the latest round of economic development grants from Albany. But the Springville Center for the Arts, a small and ambitious cultural organization working to revitalize its economically challenged community in southern Erie County, came away a huge winner when the grants were announced Wednesday.
The state’s Regional Economic Development Council program awarded the center $829,120 for two major rehabilitation projects, an unusually large sum for an organization of its size and resources.
About half the money, $434,310, will be used to repair and expand the center’s headquarters in a former church just off the village’s main drag. The remaining $394,810 will go toward the center’s project to repair and convert a dilapidated building on Springville’s Main Street into a multi-use arts center that will include artist residences, exhibition and performance spaces and a café.
Springville Center for the Arts Executive Director Seth Wochensky, who has led the campaign to grow the organization and improve the vitality of the village, called the grants “remarkable.” His proposal to the state made clear that the center is promoting art not merely for art’s sake, but as a means to bring sorely needed economic investment and vitality to Springville.
“We cannot approach looking at these funding [opportunities] and just saying that our only impact is just art from a theoretical standpoint, because we exist in the world,” he said. “We have impacts far beyond the arts from just a purely aesthetic appreciation standpoint. It is kind of remarkable I think that our organization was able to make the case that we fit into all those other boxes.”
Aaron Bartley, a member of Western New York’s Regional Economic Council and director of People United for Sustainable Housing, said the Springville Center for the Arts proposal was directly in line with the council’s 2011 plan for funding “smart growth” projects.
“Smart growth, to us, is defined in part by a focus on investing in downtowns and village Main Streets,” Bartley said. “What the Springville Center for the Arts is doing, how it ties into the larger rebirth of the street that it’s located on and the fact that arts and culture are a driver of economic development and relate to the values of urbanism is embedded in that smart growth [strategy].”
The modern life of the organization began in 2007, when the Springville community raised $100,000 to purchase a former Baptist church a block off Main Street. With Wochensky at the helm and the community contributing volunteer labor and other piecemeal contributions, the center began to host theater performances, film screenings, art exhibitions and classes.
The grant will enable the center to repair its badly damaged roof as well as repair the masonry of its exterior; completely renovate the building’s south wing to include expanded classroom space; double the size of its art gallery; bring its bathrooms up to code; and make the building more accessible.
“Our whole thing has been: make the building safe, efficient, comfortable, accessible to all the people we want to program the arts to,” Wochensky said. “It’s going to allow us to expand our workshop program a lot. It’ll allow us to bring more people in. Our [art] exhibit program, it’ll just change that game completely.”
The other project, a major repair and renovation project to save a 132-year-old building at 5 E. Main St. from the wrecking ball and convert it into a multi-use facility called Art’s Café, holds promise for kick-starting development in the village’s struggling core and providing the center a steady stream of earned revenue.
“I think it is the signal of a new wave of investment in downtown, without a doubt,” Wochensky said of the two grants. “I think one of the biggest impacts that we’ve always been after with the 5 East Main project is spurring other investment. A private entity could never take that building, turn it around and make a project. It would just be absolutely impossible. But we’re able to save that building and the buildings next to it, and we really hope that will make private investment so much more appealing.”
That’s also the hope of Regional Economic Council co-chairman and smart growth proponent Howard Zemsky, who said the council believes in historic buildings, adaptive reuse projects and arts and cultural organizations as economic drivers.
“It fits in around those themes of smart growth and the desire to attract talent, young people. For too long, I think we’ve sort of separated those things out, like community development and economic development, as though they’re totally different, unrelated activities. We don’t believe that to be the case.”
For Bartley, who stressed that the region’s economic development plan is not limited to urban cores but should extend to small towns and villages across five counties, the impact of the state’s investment will be easy to see.
“When you drive through that town,” he said, “you will definitely see the impact of that project in a visible way.”