The city of Providence, R.I., was struggling in the early 1980s. Manufacturers had left. Wealthy residents were gone, and much of the city’s downtown had been boarded up. So, local leaders tried something different: the arts.
“There was complete disrepair and neglect, so it was really a question of let’s throw everything out there and see what sticks,” said Lynn McCormack, the city’s director of art, culture and tourism. “By the late ’80s and early ’90s, we had spaces that were repurposed, and our arts community percolated. It’s what saved the city.”
Atlantic City faces a similar situation, on a smaller scale. The resort town has seen millions infused into the arts in the past year. The Atlantic City Alliance has paid to turn two deteriorating city spaces into temporary art parks about a year ago, and the front of Boardwalk Hall turns into a 3-D light show several times a night.
Meanwhile, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has partnered with the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to bring an arts-retail space into the Duck-town neighborhood. Another $300,000 has been pledged as a subsidy to the Garden State Film Festival, and $130,000 will help relocate the Atlantic City Ballet to back within the city’s limits.
Residents and local legislators, however, have criticized all this, saying no one will come to Atlantic City for the arts, especially with the resort located so close to significant arts communities in Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C. Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said, Atlantic City “is not the Smithsonian Institute.”
Jeff Guaracino, chief strategist for the Alliance, said the plan to reinvent the city with the arts is not something that will see results overnight, but it is something that can work even in a city so close to Philadelphia and other cultural hot spots.
“I think you have to take a step back and realize that things take time. We’re talking about a year with a hurricane thrown in the middle,” Guaracino said. “You have to remember, when people looked at the Miss America coverage, there were some beautiful aerial shots where people saw a big beautiful, gorgeous park instead of an empty lot and maybe they thought, ‘It looks nice there.’”
The Atlantic City Alliance, created by Tourism District legislation to market the city, has championed the art projects intended to transform vacant lots into temporary installations that will be removed if interested developers emerge. Officials say transforming the blighted properties will make the city cleaner and safer while encouraging a new segment of tourists to consider coming to the resort.
“In terms of the removal of blight, when you remove an empty space, when you take down an old, rusting billboard …. you don’t get credit for that kind of stuff,” Guaracino said. “People don’t think it should be there anyway. So it becomes, ‘Oh great. It’s gone.’ No one gets applause for removing blight.”
McCormack said plans for the arts in Providence saw little criticism, but noted that it’s not unusual to see tension when communities are growing. Still, while Providence, like Atlantic City, is located close to other arts Meccas, such as Boston, the city also already had some established arts presence in the Rhode Island School of Design and other academia. McCormack also pointed out that seeing any significant impact from the arts takes time.
“In the last 10 years, the arts community has really proven it’s an investment that’s worth the risk,” she said. “In one downtown case, artists bought a block of buildings full of porn shops and adult bookstores and transformed it. For us, investing in the arts was a way to step it up. It really changed the streetscape.”
Still, in Atlantic City’s case, some of the work is temporary. Last year, the alliance rolled out a plan to temporarily transform empty spaces into arts parks. As many as four or five were initially discussed, but now, Guaracino said, it’s not clear where or when the next park might come.
Two have have been created — one at the former Sands Casino Hotel site, and one on the Boardwalk at California Avenue.
The Sands property had stood vacant since 2007 after the casino was imploded in what was a plan to build a mega-casino in its place. That plan never materialized, and the site stood vacant for years, until the Alliance built Artlantic, a walkable art display featuring a faux pirate ship and illuminated displays featuring words such as, “Imagine” and “Believe.”
The sites, however, have drawn criticism as the alliance’s plan has been to dismantle them if interested buyers emerge. In the case of the former Sands site, the property’s owner, Pinnacle Entertainment, sold the site to a development company in September.
Still, Guaracino said, there are no plans to take down the park yet. That won’t be done until development is imminent, he said.
“The hardest thing is finding additional sites in the city where there aren’t currently talks of development. We don’t want to put something in right before something new is built,” Guaracino said. “The whole point of the program is to start, not to stop development.”
But for Waybe Schaffel, a public relations consultant and former Atlantic City casino executive, the plan of focusing on the arts doesn’t make sense. Turning Atlantic City around, he said, would call for an attraction so grand that it can’t be missed.
“People are not going to go after land because there’s a park on it,” Schaffel said. “If they really wanted to do something productive with land that would help the city, they could give it away to developers, not create parks on it.”
Others have suggested that smaller-scale cleanups with light landscaping and fencing could have accomplished the goal of making the area look neater while spending less money.
The alliance, however, has touted the community draw the parks can have. Last summer, a series of programming, including musical performances and fitness classes were held at the parks. While the fitness classes received good attendance and feedback, other performances saw sparse attendance. The alliances has estimated that 500,000 people have watched the 3-D show on Boardwalk Hall, but the group doesn’t have a good sense of how many people have visited the art parks.
“The morning Zumba and fitness classes were great, but the concerts in the evening didn’t draw as well as we’d hoped,” Guaracino said. “We have to look at things like time, location within the park, and what else was competition for people’s time and attention. We’ll revisit that for our program in 2014, but we haven’t made any decisions yet.”
Also coming in 2014 is the addition of a walkable arts path in the Marina District linking the Golden Nugget Atlantic City through the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. The alliance has partnered with Stockton’s Noyes Museum and commissioned local artists to create the installations, many of which have been installed. A formal opening of the installation has not taken place.
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