UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store Arts Campus is at Core of a Growing Creative Economy and the Revitalization of Downtown New Bedford
By Jarrad Nunes
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Magazine, Spring 2008
On a recent Thursday AHA! Night in downtown New Bedford, one instantly feels the energy and vitality of a living, breathing urban community. Galleries buzz with excitement, as new works are unveiled to appreciative art lovers. Across the street, a former industrial garage recently revamped as an independent concert venue hosts a fledgling jazz-rock ensemble and their enthusiastic audience. An improv troupe resembling a trio of Greek statues delights passersby while in the distance diners enjoy a meal. At the center of the excitement, UMass Dartmouth’s satellite arts campus–known as the Star Store from its previous life as a downtown retail fixture–stands at the epicenter of a city renewed and reborn. The electric atmosphere at the corner of Purchase and Union streets is even more astounding when one considers New Bedford’s not-so-distant past.
Just 15 years ago, the Star Store was emblematic of what had become a depressed and desolate city center. Once the hub of New Bedford’s bustling business district, the long-dormant building carried the raw wounds of a stagnant economy and a changing community. Its terra cotta façade had begun to crumble after years of neglect; thieves had stripped the building of the copper flashing that once lined the perimeter of the roof. This staggering vacancy set in motion a downward spiral that threatened the existence of the entire downtown.
In this void, some saw an opportunity to draw on art and education as a catalyst for New Bedford’s renaissance. Over a period of three years, State Senator Mark Montigny ’84 advocated for a state investment that would not only restore the Star Store’s grand exterior, but would also refashion the interior into a state-of-the-art satellite facility for the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.
UMass Dartmouth had long been a fixture in New Bedford, dating back to one of its predecessor institutions, the Swain School of Design, which had occupied several buildings in the city’s west end since ” the late 1800s. This new project, however, would bring hundreds of students directly into the depressed city center to study and to create, drawing on a successful model in Portland, Maine, where the transformation of a defunct department store into the flagship facility of the Maine College of Art sparked the turnaround of an entire downtown area.
The local media touted the project as a “savior” and “the key to downtown revitalization,” and hundreds were on hand when Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack was joined by city and state leaders to cut the ribbon in September 2001.
“The university’s presence in downtown New Bedford has been absolutely critical,” said Matthew Morrissey ’96, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “What you have in the success of the Star Store project, along with the establishment of the National Park in the downtown historic district, are the bookends of New Bedford’s resurgence as a center for art, history, culture, and education. It is in this ‘creative economy,’ stimulated in large part by the university’s presence in the downtown corridor, that we’ve found the greatest growth and the greatest potential for future development.”
A 2008 study commissioned by the Economic Development Council sought to further define and examine the components of New Bedford’s creative economy. The research confirmed definitively that the city’s “creative economy is not an incidental contributor to the city, but a significant generator for economic growth.”
The raw numbers tell the story even more convincingly. Nearly three percent of New Bedford’s workforce is actively contributing to the creative economy, a robust number when compared to the Massachusetts (2.5%) and national (1.6%) percentages. These individuals earn an average of $38,000 annually, well above New Bedford’s median income.
This sustained growth has fueled a considerable increase in redevelopment projects in the city center. Since the reopening of the Star Store in 2001, more than a half-million square feet of commercial space-nearly one-third of the total-have been renovated for new businesses or converted to residential use. Including current construction projects, the total value of renovations in downtown New Bedford amounts to a staggering $80 million. For many developers, such significant investment became more attractive once the Star Store project proved itself a risk worth taking.
“The UMass Dartmouth project eliminated a huge source of blight, and had a very positive ripple effect throughout the area,” said Mark Hess, senior project manager for HallKeen Real Estate Investment and Management, a major contributor to the redevelopment boom.
“Almost instantly, the presence of UMass Dartmouth students and faculty in New Bedford’s downtown had a positive impact on the life of an entire area. This influx of a creative, well-educated population to downtown New Bedford made it a significantly more attractive, and certainly a more marketable, place to live and work.”
Specifically, Hess and HallKeen have been instrumental in encouraging participants in the creative economy to become downtown residents. A massive redevelopment project, The Union Street Lofts, saw the complete restoration of five separate turn-of-the-century buildings in downtown New Bedford. “The true potential of this area lies in its capacity as a residential center,” Hess said. “We’ve made significant strides in just five years. As more artists and UMass Dartmouth students and faculty occupy space in the city center, it has become clear that it must become a more consumable place, with enough to do throughout the week and throughout the year to be a viable home base for professionals and families.”
One of downtown New Bedford’s newest residents is also a recent addition to the university. College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Adrian Tió relocated to the area in August 2007 from Illinois, and opted for a residence within walking distance of the Star Store campus. Said Tió, “the ‘walkability’ of downtown New Bedford was what sold me initially. On my first visit, I was struck by how accessible everything was. It was easy to connect the dots. I could see myself at the coffee shop and the Mexican restaurant, at the Star Store and the Zeiterion. I saw a number of venues that I could take guests to-the New Bedford Art Museum, ArtWorks! and Gallery X. It was all there, within walking distance. That’s why I chose to live in downtown New Bedford.”
Another encouraging sign of the creative economy’s strength in New Bedford are the increasing numbers of UMass Dartmouth alumni who remain in the area after graduation. Jennifer Carland, a Pittsburgh native who received her Master of Fine Arts in Jewelry/Metals in 2007, began her post-collegiate career in New Bedford, a move that would have seemed unlikely when she first came to the area in 2002.
“I have to be honest that my first impressions of the area, specifically downtown, were not overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “I was drawn to the MFA program at UMass Dartmouth because of the accomplished faculty and the incredible studio spaces and artists’ facilities at the Star Store, but the downtown area really was a depressing place when I first arrived. I didn’t know the area other than what I knew from researching the graduate programs at UMass Dartmouth, so I was surprised to find an urban center with so many vacant spaces.”
As her studies progressed, Carland began to notice changes downtown that transcended mere aesthetic improvements. “In my experience, the people of New Bedford have always been real, approachable, and very friendly. When things started happening throughout the area, you could sense that people, both the longtime residents and the students living here, finally began to realize what New Bedford had to offer. There’s history here, and you couldn’t ask for a better location with Boston, Providence, and Cape Cod so close.”
Carland herself is an active participant in the region’s creative economy, working since late last year as the ArtWorks! gallery and office manager. ArtWorks! is a non-profit arts incubator serving the entire city, from working artists seeking studio space to at-risk area youth needing safe, structured after-school activities. Carland finds the youth outreach “the most difficult, but most rewarding” aspect of her efforts at the 15-year-old organization.
“Overall, my experience at ArtWorks! has been very exciting, and an excellent learning experience leading out of my graduate studies at UMass Dartmouth. It’s been a great fit.”
Irene Buck, the organization’s executive director, agreed. “Jennifer has become such an important member of our organization. More and more, ArtWorks! has been a wonderful place for student artists to develop their skills beyond the classroom. They’re getting real-world experience here.”
ArtWorks! workshop leaders and program coordinators include a number of UMass Dartmouth students and alumni. “The Star Store project was an investment that has provided an invaluable return to the entire downtown community,” Buck said. “That arts campus is a threshold for a student artist to experience the area. The art students at UMass Dartmouth are part of a smaller ‘Star Store community.’ What’s encouraging to me are the students who are actively engaging themselves in the larger New Bedford community, beyond the university.
“The recent conversations about New Bedford’s creative economy have been especially exciting, because it’s essentially a recognition by our leaders that the arts have a relevant place in our communities. The creative energy being expended finds its way throughout the entire regional economy. Many folks are learning that you can run just about any business creatively!”
Evidence of this statement can be seen at Cork Wine and Tapas, a recent addition to the downtown dining scene. With a distinct look and contemporary menu that wouldn’t be out of place in a much larger city, owner Richard Cardoza relished the opportunity to tap into a new energy that he saw building in downtown New Bedford.
“An establishment like Cork is a necessity in any place where professionals and artists live and work,” Cardoza said. “I’ve seen the arts and culture drive economies to success time and time again. New Bedford is no different. The Star Store project, and the young, energetic population it has reintroduced to the downtown area, have provided fuel to a fire that’s been burning for a long time. It’s definitely a critical piece. The potential is slowly being realized.”
New Bedford’s potential as an economic and cultural hub was evident to Karie Vincent, Executive Director of New Bedford Art Museum, during her first visit to the city in 1998. “Right away, I observed an unusual spirit of cooperation and collaboration. Community leaders were resisting the common tendency to think in competitive terms. Organizations were working together, pooling their resources, feeding each other’s creativity, and celebrating each other’s successes. I knew I wanted to be a part of a community that was moving forward with such determination and unity. I could feel it-something very special was happening in downtown New Bedford!
“The creative economy has always been here. This movement was defined only recently, but it existed a thousand years ago. What is happening today is that we are expanding our understanding of that part of our economy and the importance of it to all of us.”
While the achievements thus far have been many, community leaders are acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead. “It’s so important that the players in the downtown revival continue to improve the way they communicate,” Hess said. “There are lots of great ideas being talked about, but they require a more cohesive, unified vision than what currently exists.”
Irene Buck of ArtWorks! concurred. “The future success of New Bedford’s creative economy requires a type of synergy that is built upon the cornerstones of communication, organization, and the recognition of what has been successful already.”
Dean Adrian Tió sees continued residential development as essential to the health of the downtown area. “You’ve got to get more people living here. Once you get that critical mass of residents, you’ll start to see real growth in the anchor businesses that one would expect to find in a city center-a grocery store, laundromat, and more restaurants. It’s hard to sustain a true residential community without them.”
The university has been working to understand better the creative economy and maintain the impressive growth of the last several years. The Business Innovation Research Center, part of the Charlton College of Business, recently received a grant to identify benchmarks for the future of the regional creative economy. This project will provide hard data to guide sustainable economic development.
Steps are also being taken to further encourage students to be active participants in the arts and culture of downtown New Bedford. The university and city recently partnered to launch The Loop, a daily shuttle bus service that links the main campus in Dartmouth with different downtown locations, including the Star Store and the Professional and Continuing Education Center.
“The Loop is a direct conduit to move students seamlessly between campuses-bridging a perceived gap between the two areas,” said Dean Tió. He hopes that students take the opportunity as passengers to “really see New Bedford.
“Hopefully, the visual cues are positive enough that students will come back on their own to take part in everything that’s going on downtown.”
Jarrad Nunes is graduate and events coordinator for the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
UMass Dartmouth’s Star Store Arts Campus is at Core of a Growing Creative Economy and the Revitalization of Downtown New Bedford