City’s 10-year revitalization offers model for arts district

The Herald News, Sunday, March 30, 2008


Pawtucket, R.I. — Want a successful arts district in a former mill town? The trick is to start 10 years ago.


After a decade, if you work really hard, you”ll be where Pawtucket is today.


“The idea for the arts district began in Providence in the early 1990s,” said Herb Weiss, a member of the city planning department who has been a central figure in Pawtucket’s arts revival from the start.


So when the Pawtucket began exploring the possibilities in 1998 and 1999, it stole liberally from its neighbor. The idea really took off when Mayor James Doyle took office in 1999 and dedicated City Hall to shepherding the arts district to success.


“I was assigned to oversee the project,” Weiss said. “We’ve had our philosophical shifts, especially in defining what a business is and what art is.


“Basically, we recognized that artists aren’t just creating truth and beauty. They are also small businesses trying to make a buck” — a realization that has informed the city’s approach since then.


The goal, Weiss said, is to make Pawtucket feel welcoming and easy to use.


There are monthly meetings in City Hall, where every bureaucrat involved in granting permits sits down in one room to answer questions and solve problems for artists and developers.


Anyone interested in moving to Pawtucket is directed to Weiss, who finds them the space they need and gives advice on how to get it developed.


He gives them a city booklet explaining the permitting process, with all the important telephone numbers. He maintains a databank of available properties and can find a sunlit studio or an open factory with high ceilings and concrete floors. Weiss will drive people around the city, showing property and pointing out the highlights.


He has become so well known in Rhode Island, he goes by one name. When someone says Herb, everyone understands they mean Weiss.


“A city that creates an arts district must have a visible arts advocate,” Weiss said. “You need someone in city government who is visible and who can work in the bureaucracy to help people out.”


Sometimes the help is simple. When the Gamm Theater and Stone Soup Coffee House, a concert venue, moved to the city, Pawtucket sent public works crews to help the groups move their equipment and folding chairs.


The value of a thriving arts scene is huge, says Bob Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. Besides the jobs artists provide and the goods they buy in stores, they also attract tourists.


“People will travel for things that are unique about a place,” Billington said. “The arts can bring about tourism.”


The city isn’t stopping with the arts, said Harvey Goulet, an aide to Mayor Doyle.


Plans are under way to convert recently vacated mill space into a design center, similar to the Boston Design Center but at a fraction of the price. Planners hope to see a facility with antique dealers, furniture stores, interior designers and architects all under one roof.


City Hall is working with Richard Kazarian, a Pawtucket native who returned to the city after he developed a national reputation as an antiques dealer.


“We all know the compelling logic of this: That we have an excess of mill space as a result of our industrial legacy,” Kazarian said. “This is what America has. We don’t have villas. We don’t have castles. We have mills. So now we have to figure out what to do with them.”


It makes sense, he says, to open up those spaces to people who are good at design and creative thought. They can make something of the mills that fits their needs and also benefits the city.


“I’m from an immigrant family,” Kazarian said. “If someone in from the family married a plumber, we were all happy because we could always use a plumber.


“I see the city reacting that way to the artists and people with a background in design.”


With arts and antiques in a small city, Pawtucket will be on the map, Billington predicted.


The city is getting there, says Tony Estrella, a Pawtucket native and artistic director of the Gamm Theater, a professional company that moved into the Pawtucket Armory on Exchange Street five years ago.


“We’ve seen increases, every year, in our attendance here,” Estrella said. “What is wonderful is that we have seen growth in each of the years in people from Pawtucket.”


It is not an easy sell. The Gamm is a small, intimate theater that stages serious work. That is the theater’s intent and it will continue, Estrella said.


“We don’t want to be all things to all people,” he said. “But we do hope to be part of a cultural change in the city. We hope Pawtucket people will see art and cultural experience as part of their lives. That is happening.”


And it is changing how Pawtucket views itself, Estrella said.


“Providence has always self-identified itself as an art town,” he said. “But to turn a place like Pawtucket, a mill city, a dying mill city, into a town that considers art an important part of the mix, that is a real accomplishment.”


Pawtucket’s evolution will continue, Weiss said. There are at least 400 artists working in the city; many of them also live here. The city once had 200 vacant houses and thousands of square feet of vacant mill space. Weiss said he sometimes has to struggle to find a place for people who want to move into town.


“We’ve done well, but it has taken us a decade,” Weiss said. “I wish Fall River well with their effort.


“Every city and town should roll out the red carpet for new businesses who want to move into the community.”