Pawtucket attempts to reinvent
itself as a haven for artists
BY D. MORGAN McVICAR
PAWTUCKET -- The arts and this city have, over the years, been about as synonymous as Haven Brothers and haute cuisine. But, as a folk singer at the city's renowned Stone Soup Coffeehouse might wail, the times they are a changin'.
It is nearby Providence that has earned the moniker "the renaissance city" and garnered national attention for its Arts & Entertainment District. Pawtucket, on the rare occasion it is mentioned in out-of-town publications, is usually preceded by an adjective such as "hardscrabble." But when it comes to actually wooing artists, it is Pawtucket, not Providence, that is walking the walk.
While precise figures are elusive, this once-thriving, long dormant birthplace of the industrial revolution has, over the past two years, lured dozens and dozens of artists into mill upon rehabilitated mill. One real-estate broker alone, Len Lavoie, says he has found space for about 60 artists in the past two years, representing more than 112,000 square feet of newly leased space.
Painters, printmakers, jewelry designers, glass blowers and other creative types are looking past the jokes to discover all the raw ingredients of a burgeoning artists colony: cheap space aplenty, great light, quick access to the interstate and, perhaps most significantly, an aggressively artist-friendly city government.
Converts in recent years include the Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, which plans to leave Providence for new quarters here; the Stone Soup Coffeehouse, long of Providence now happily ensconced in the Slater Mill; Mirror Image, one of the nation's elite screen-printing businesses, which abandoned Cambridge for a mill on Exchange Street; and the Foundry Artists, who have moved their annual December show and sale from Providence to Pawtucket.
The recent arrivals have, in turn, been welcomed with open arms by such established artists as Gretchen Dow Simpson and Howard Ben Tre, who found their little piece of Pawtucket heaven some years before.
Pawtucket may never be Paris on the Blackstone. But during the next two weeks, outsiders are invited to see for themselves how far and fast the city has come during an expanded Convergence 2001, the city's portion of the statewide art festival.
With a Convergence budget of $83,000, four times that of two years ago, the city is offering more than 100 events, from Shakespeare to Chinese folk dancing. There will be a poetry slam, a film festival, photo and art exhibitions, puppet shows, trolley tours of artists' studios, a doo-wop concert and a folk concert featuring, among others, Grammy-nominee Bill Harley.
The Pawtucket Arts Collaborative, which formed less than a year ago but already claims 71 dues-paying members, will exhibit members' works throughout Convergence at the city's Visitors Center.
The Pawtucket Convergence events began Friday with an opening day gala; yesterday, events included a race of Chinese dragon boats. The focus shifts to Providence this weekend.
But those behind the festival hope that the point will have been made: Pawtucket and the arts are no laughing matter.
PAWTUCKET'S foray into Soho territory began three years ago. Newly elected Mayor James E. Doyle formed the "20-20 Committee," and asked it to carve out a vision for the city's future.
Businessman and artist Morris Nathanson, a committee member, had some ideas. Fifteen years ago, Nathanson bought a former paper mill in the city and began its rehabilitation. Today, the 30,000-square-foot building is fully leased, including 12 units leased to artists..
Nathanson invited Doyle and other committee members to come take a look. Light bulbs soon went off.
"It started with the visit to Morris's mill," Doyle says. "The thing just kind of mushroomed. You have to make a commitment first. If you do, you're off and running."
That commitment began with the creation of an Arts & Entertainment District of more than 300 acres, including 22 empty mills. Artists who work there are exempt from sales taxes; artists who live and work there get an income-tax break.
Close to 100 cities across the nation have established such districts, all intent on cashing in on the unique ability of artists to transform depressed areas into vibrant hubs of activity.
So, in the dog-eat-dog battle over artists, what would set Pawtucket apart? Attitude, says Doyle, and execution.
That, say artists who have relocated to the city, means that calls to the mayor are answered immediately and problems are addressed quickly. Doyle also felt the city needed an advocate for artists, someone who would help them in their relocation.
He called on Herb Weiss, a city worker in the planning department.
"You have an arts district," Doyle told Weiss. "You need to market it and get the word out."
"You know what it gets down to?" Weiss says. "It gets down to customer service in working with artists. Lots of communities with mill space are looking to become communities with artists. It gets down to customer service, making it easy for them to find space and work through problems."
JASON THOMPSON started a bindery business in his bedroom in Providence's Fox Point a decade ago. Rag & Bone Bindery now has 16 employees, business is booming and Thompson is looking to buy a mill building where he and his wife can both live and work.
Last spring, Thompson and numerous other artists were tossed out of One Allens Avenue in Providence. The mill building will be razed to make way for the relocation of Route 195. Thompson is now renting space at 134 Thurbers Ave.
But he wants to buy, for reasons of stability and economy. Providence being his first choice, he contacted the city first. Someone in City Hall e-mailed him a list of mill buildings, and that was the last he heard from Providence.
From Pawtucket, meanwhile, came a steady flood of e-mails, telephone calls and faxes.
"Herb Weiss has been tenacious," Thompson says. "He follows up on every lead. He's just been always there. If he hears through the rumor mill someone may be interested in selling, he calls us up.
"At least I feel if we go to Pawtucket, somebody is on our side. I think I feel a little bit intimidated about Providence."
The tenacity of Herb Weiss also was at play in the move of the Stone Soup Coffeehouse. After almost 20 years in Providence in a series of locations, the fixture on the American folk music circuit was on the move again last year.
A search for new quarters in Providence got nowhere, says Richard Walton, Stone Soup's president. Then, one day last year, Gail Mohanty, executive director of Slater Mill, called and offered the mill's second floor.
"It has a great deal of character," Walton says. "After all, the place is more than 200 years old. There's wood everywhere, and it smells great. And it's right on the falls of the Blackstone River. And it has tons of free parking right on site. And it's right off the highway."
There was a rub -- the rent. Walton called Weiss.
"He went to local merchants and got them to contribute $2,100 to help us pay our rent the first year," Walton says. "The city provided a truck, a driver and a worker to go to the church, and they packed up all our stuff and carried it for us.
"Stone Soup is now in the strongest financial position it's been in in its 20-year history. The audience loves the place. It has charm and atmosphere. I doubt if there's a better place in all of the United States for folk music. We hope they'll want us to stay forever."
PROVIDENCE WAS ALSO the first choice of the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, which has been in Providence since 1984. The theater has outgrown its quarters in the Jewelry District and has been looking for space in Providence for about four years, says board president Sam Babbitt.
Frustrated by rents beyond its reach, the theater's board, at the suggestion of artistic director and Pawtucket resident Nigel Gore, visited Pawtucket's Armory.
"The more we began to think about it, the more interesting it was to us," Babbitt says. "And we found other organizations that are also looking for space, organizations we thought we'd be very compatible with.
"We went to the Pawtucket school superintendent with a relatively modest proposal (that) we become involved in drama instruction. He was very eager to do more than that, and put together a proposal for a high school for the performing arts.
"The result is we became very excited about the possibility of being involved with a number of artistic groups -- music, dance, theater and education -- and put a proposal together that the building be renovated and used to that kind of purpose."
And so it apparently will be, although there is $6.5 million to be raised first.
When Rick Roth's monthly rent in Cambridge, Mass., rose from $6,000 to $24,000, he decided his company, Mirror Image, an elite screen-printing business, would have to leave.
Roth contacted officials in many cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some, like Boston, ignored him. Pawtucket, he says, put on a full-court press.
In October 1999, Roth and his 30 employees came south, moving into what was once an electric printing business, an old mill with a modern addition that Roth purchased.
"Pawtucket made it clear they wanted us here. I didn't know much about it. But now, I'm looking to buy a house here. I like it here. Mill town means big red brick buildings and a river. That's a good thing. They have a great, supportive city government, a lot of space and affordable rents.
"That's a great recipe for the arts."© 2001 The Providence Journal Company