Betting on the Arts to Revitalize the City

By Natalie Myers,
Providence Business News Staff Writer

Lori Bradley recognizes the impact the creative economy is making in New Bedford.
As a ceramics/mixed-media artist and as part owner of a six-artist cooperative gallery downtown – MOSAIC Gallery, which opened two weeks ago – Bradley is also part of the creative economy that has spurred mill renovations, mixed-use developments and a host of new businesses to emerge in New Bedford.
Developers, city officials, nonprofit arts organization staff, artists and gallery owners are hopeful the trend will pull the city out of its economic malaise.
Walking down William Street, Matt Morrissey, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, pointed out No Problemo. The restaurant, which serves tacos, burritos and quesadillas, has been there for five years.
Then Morrissey pointed out a small music store, a skateboard store and a DVD store around the corner.
“None of these were here three years ago,” he said.
Farther down William Street, making a left onto Acushnet Avenue, Morrissey highlighted Dyer Brown & Associates Architects, which also has offices in Boston and Wellesley, and C. Raymond Hunt Associates Inc., which moved to New Bedford from Boston last summer.
He called attracting the architecture firm and yacht designing firm the third stage of the creative economy.
Morrissey said the first stage was the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s 2001 opening of the Star Store campus on Purchase Street in downtown New Bedford. The university redeveloped the landmark department store into a hub for its college of visual and performing arts.
Since then, many students taking classes there have stayed in the city because they are attracted to the cheap rents, Bradley said. Some studio mill space is as cheap as $200 per month.
The second stage of creative economy development involves attracting the eclectic shops and restaurants such as No Problemo, Morrissey said. The hope is to get to the third stage, where the city is attracting the high-wage creative companies. But one link in the chain leads to the next, he said. And that process is what the city wants to maintain.
“The mayor does not want to see any resident or artist priced out of the New Bedford market,” Morrissey said. “We are carefully planning to ensure there is a very clear balance.”
But Bradley said she already sees some artists feeling pushed out of the market.
On Cove Street, developers have plans to redevelop two mill buildings occupied by artists into 248 market-rate lofts. Bradley said those artists feel especially worried about displacement because they are by the water. They’re not sure how long they will be able to stay, she said.
Also along New Bedford’s industrial waterfront there is a huge project involving the redevelopment of Wamsutta Mill into 250 condominiums and apartments, said Patrick Sullivan, director of the office of housing and community development for the city.
“We have four to five projects underway right now as far as converting existing mills into residential space,” he said.
The Ropeworks Building, not far from the industrial waterfront, is one of those projects. But it has a different mission.
The goal of Ropeworks is to provide mill live/work space only to visual artists, said Norm Buck, developer of the mill. The 14 spaces range from 1,000 square feet to more than 2,000 square feet and cost between $150,000 and $400,000 to purchase. Twelve of the 14 spaces already have been purchased.
“We’re one facet of what it takes to have a creative economy,” said Adam Buck, who is developing the site with his father, Norm. Adam Buck added that when artists purchase space, it is one of the only ways to ensure they won’t get priced out of the market.
But Bradley sees another problem. She said most artists have trouble affording the $250,000-range lofts like those at Ropeworks, and there is no other project like Ropeworks in the city.
She said she wishes the city or a private owner would sell one of the mill buildings in the city to a group of artists for them to renovate themselves. She hopes it would be subsidized so that the artist-owned space could be set at affordable rates for purchase. She sees that as one option to ensure artists will stay.
In the meantime, Mayor Scott Lang recently announced the creation of a new position in the city – a creative economy liaison position. The person who fills the position would be responsible for attracting creative businesses such as architects and designers to the city, in addition to helping individual artists market their crafts.
He or she will be the go-to person for anyone inquiring about anything related to the city’s creative economy, said Elizabeth Treadup, spokeswoman for Lang.
For now, the city’s artists and arts organizations will have to rely on AHA!, a nonprofit formed in 1999 dedicated to promoting New Bedford’s art, history and architecture, for marketing and promotion of the arts.
Several artists, galleries, theaters, restaurants and stores have benefited from the nonprofit’s free monthly cultural event, similar to Providence’s Gallery Nights but inclusive of the city’s historical museums and live music, which is held on the second Thursday of every month.
The event has turned the city into a destination, said Nilsa Garcia-Rey, executive director of Gallery X at 169 William St. Founded in 1990, the nonprofit artist co-op gallery was one of the first galleries to open in the city.
AHA!’s annual open studios also attract many visitors. In its third year, the event has grown significantly, which some say is a testament to the growing creative economy in the city.
Margie Butler, program director for AHA!, said in 2005 the open studios took place in five locations. It involved 65 participating artists and attracted 633 unique visitors. Last year it involved nine locations, 81 artists and 1,165 documented visitors, she said.
This year the event, to be held Sept. 29-30, is expected to showcase more than 100 artists who live and/or work in New Bedford.
But Garcia-Rey said that despite AHA!’s efforts, “I’m a realist, I see artists struggling. I see a struggling economy in New Bedford … there isn’t a whole lot of employment in the city. Artists have to struggle to be resourceful” and take outside jobs.
Garcia-Rey also sees a need to change New Bedford’s image.
“You only see TV vans when there’s a horrible tragedy,” she said. “The perception of New Bedford is formed by that. People from surrounding communities don’t want to come into town because they’re afraid.”
Still, Garcia-Rey said she sees people coming from cities such as Providence to attend the monthly AHA! events.
“It’s happening slowly,” she said. “We all want it to happen faster.”
Posted Jul. 16, 2007

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