Rocco Landesman, Chairman for The National Endowment for the Arts, spent about two hours touring Woonsocket from RiverzEdge to the Stadium Theatre today.
Joining him were Mayor Leo Fontaine, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Economic Development Director Matt Wojcik and City Councilor Bob Moreau. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), joined the group later near City Hall.
Landesman came to Woonsocket at Reed's invitation. The RI Senator oversees federal arts funding as the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, including the NEA’s annual budget of about $146 million.
Woonsocket is seeking to strengthen its creative community and is applying for a $100,000 federal NEA “Our Town” grant. Landesman created the grants, which offer awards to projects that seek to improve quality of life, encourage creative activity, create community identity, and revitalize local economies.
Should Woonsocket win the grant, the city would be responsible for matching the funds via in-kind donations, said Wojcik. The city could know if they win the grant as early as this summer, he said.
They began their tour at , a non-profit offering youth (ages 12 to 24) an opportunity for paid employment in the arts and a voice in their community. The tour began with a short introduction by Rebekah Greenwald, executive director of RiverzEdge. A brief tour of the facilty was led by Kyla Foster, the organization's Americorp Vista volunteer. She showed off the design studio, equipped with Macintosh computers loaded with creative software, allowing students to learn HTML and web design, and the screen printing shop, where Reed and Landesman tried their hand at printing designs on a few T-shirts.
From there, the group walked upstairs to visit Robin Saillant, owner of Ocean State School of Performing Arts, in her studio, and a brief tour of the second floor along with Marie Deschenes, owner of the building at 68 South Main St.
Then, it was across the city along Main Street toward Stadium Theatre. Along the way, they met Hannah Garrison, owner of Wearyourmusic.org, along with her daughter, Camilla, 1 and 1/2. Wearyourmusic.org makes, among other items, jewelry from guitar strings used by the likes of Eric Clapton, John Mayer and Bonnie Raitt.
At Stadium Theatre, they met Cathy Levesque, executive director of the theatre, who showed the group the restored foyer and lavishly appointed ladies room - a rare opportunity for the men in attendance, she noted.
She also showed the group the theatre space, noting all the work done to restore it, mostly by volunteer efforts (though the seats were restored through the labors of inmates at the ACI). Volunteers not only helped restore the site, she said, but help run the theatre too, including the concession stands. Without the volunteers, she said, the theatre wouldn't be where it is today. "We couldn't afford the payroll," she said.
"I was very impressed," Landesman said, "The buildings are beautiful, there's great buildings here, great stuff to work with. It's already in process. A lot of the buildings have been rehabbed, repurposed. I think we're going to see more and more of that and I think the arts are going to play a big role."
"The reason we wanted to bring the Chairman up is to show him what they're doing first hand, with the Mayor's leadership. They recognize the connection between economic development and the arts, " Reed said.
Reed referenced RiverzEdge and Stadium Theatre as examples of that connection at work. "City officials, local non-profits, and businesses are working together and using the arts as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization," Reed said.