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by Susan Guynn
Hundreds of volunteers with a plan have turned empty downtown storefronts into art galleries that are drawing a global crowd.
Main Streets all across America struggled with a slow and steady decline for decades as retailers and businesses moved from downtowns to shiny new malls and office buildings at the edge of town. But as the saying goes, what goes around comes around. Today, there are grassroots movements popping up in small town America to revitalize Main Streets, and while these new Main Streets may not look like the Main Streets of days gone by, they are energizing communities to bring them back to life.
In Waynesboro, Pa., Destination ARTS! — an initiative incorporating the arts to revitalize its Main Street, launched in 2013. Every weekend from July through October, visual and performing artists fill a seven-block downtown stretch of Main Street, engaging the community and a spirit of volunteerism. And to think the inspiration came from a view of empty storefronts.
“In July, I counted 17 vacant commercial buildings on Main Street,” says Andrew Sussman, president of the Arts Alliance of Greater Waynesboro and chairman of Destination ARTS! His proposal was to use this underutilized space to advocate the region’s talented artists and at the same time help stimulate the local economy and promote the borough and Franklin County as an arts and cultural hub for the tri-state area. “The idea of Waynesboro becoming an arts destination is not so far-fetched,” says Andrew.
In the 1800s, John Bell had a thriving pottery operation in Waynesboro. Bell’s pottery is highly regarded by collectors and museums today. And the industrially-financed wealthy families who lived in Waynesboro in the early 1900s “were frugal, wanted to keep their money local and wanted their amenities. That’s why a town that had only a population of 4,000 had an opera house,” says David McJonathan, who owns an antique shop on Main Street, is a member of the Waynesboro Historical Society, and is a Destination ARTS! volunteer.
So, Andrew’s concept was to secure some of those vacant commercial spaces and transform them into pop-up galleries for 15 weeks. The twofold goal: Begin to establish Waynesboro as a destination, and attract permanent tenants to occupy the spaces. It took about 200 volunteers and a lot of work, but by the end of the inaugural season, it was mission accomplished with all seven of the gallery spaces accommodating permanent tenants.
Gallery 50, a pop-up located at 50 W. Main St., became the Destination ARTS! flagship gallery. Located in the former Saul’s Mens Wear, the store’s original pressed tin ceiling was hidden under five layers of ceiling coverings, says Marjorie Tressler, a portrait artist, and the gallery curator. Both her husband, Roy Tressler, and wildlife photographer and contractor Denny Bingaman were major players in getting the storefront’s gallery ready.
Marjorie curated the galleries for Destination ARTS! debut, managing the more than 120 participating artists and over 1,200 pieces of art. About one-third of them were sold, she says.
“We had to get seven galleries ready in six weeks. We worked 14 to 16 hours a day. It’s the kind of thing that once you start it you have to keep going to make it successful,” Marjorie says. Visitors from 25 states and eight countries signed a guest book at one of the galleries during the 15-week kickoff, she says. An estimated 4,000 people showed up for Destination ARTS! events on one day, Marjorie says.
Gallery 50 represents more than 70 artists from the tri-state region and beyond, and includes fine art, pottery, jewelry and sculpture. Prices range from $2.50 for a notecard to thousands of dollars. Most pieces are in the $250 to $2,000 price range, Marjorie says.
Organizers kept the momentum rolling through winter and spring with changing themed exhibits and Wine Down Fridays, which drew as many as 75 people to Gallery 50 to mingle with artists and authors, listen to live music and enjoy free wine. In March, Marjorie launched painting classes and Uncorked Inspirations — private parties for small groups to gather, pop a cork, and paint.
A few doors east of Gallery 50, is 42 West Arts Co-op. Born out of Destination ARTS!, the co-op has about 18 members, and is aptly located at 42 W. Main St. “My husband [Denny] and I spearheaded it, and it all came together,” says Donna Bingaman, who is also a portrait artist. “This is really awesome. It started as a vision and it seems to have flourished.”
From an economic standpoint, Destination Arts! has been very successful, says Scott Hershberger, Mainstreet Waynesboro’s director of economic development. The once-vacant storefronts now have tenants, including a photography studio, and the Ceramic Arts Center of Waynesboro — now in a building that was once a funeral home.
The stimulus reached beyond the arts community, Scott says, with some business owners reporting increased foot traffic. Sapporo, a Japanese restaurant in the town square, even expanded to accommodate more customers.
“There are a number of other events throughout the year,” Scott says, including the Chocolate Extravaganza in March, a classic car and truck show on June 21 and the 10th annual Market Day, which will be held the first Saturday in October and attracts about 6,000 people to Main Street.
“JCPenney might not be coming back, but we have niche markets. The dynamics of downtowns have changed,” Scott says. “You have to think of ways to bring people in.”
As spring rolls into summer, look for Destination ARTS! to ramp up events. It won’t be the same as the 2013 season, Andrew says, noting that plans are still evolving, but there will be music in the streets, art on the walls, and plans are to have a venue for black box theater, readings, authors and book signings, and live music Friday through Sunday nights. There is also a juried art show being planned for September.
“It’s brought a very positive attitude and new vitality to the town, which is all we could have hoped for,” Andrew says. “We needed an idea to embrace. The community has been tremendously supportive. We feel we have a shot. We haven’t finished yet.”