Creating an Arts District

While I was out in Western Pennsylvania, I decided to pick up a couple of other jobs to enable me to be more efficient with my time. One of my favorite areas was the Monongahela Valley, where I had worked when I was administering a trade readjustment program for the Commonwealth Bureau of Labor and Industry.

The area was devastated during the early ‘80s when the steel industry went through a transformation, and old style steel mills became obsolete. It was proven that Japan had dumped steel on the US market, and I was there administering a program to provide potential financial assistance (TRA) and recommendations for training (TAA). I worked in the Charleroi office.

I was able to secure a consulting relationship with the Mid Mon Valley Cultural Trust, and I became the project manager for the restoration and of the Coyle Theater in Charleroi. Located in a large historic district, the theater had a few setbacks in funding streams and it was decided that it was appropriate for me to construct the financing for the project.

There is approximately a 25 percent commercial vacancy in the downtown business district along McKean and Fallowfield Avenues. Many of the buildings are in need of comprehensive rehabilitation efforts to make them financially viable units. In many cases, the upper floor apartments have not been rented in years, and may have code issues to resolve before the units can be occupied.

The Coyle Theater closed in 1999, and has not played a significant role in the revitalization. The Theater is owned by the Mid Mon Valley Cultural Trust, and is a long sought after project that never seemed to materialize after the acquisition.

The theater could act as an anchor for the downtown when the project is completed.  The theater is capable of generating nighttime foot traffic on the street, both before and after shows. The Mid Mon Valley Cultural Trust plans to follow the recommendations included in the 1988 study, and concentrate primarily on films with occasional concerts. The movie schedule will include independent, classic and art films shown daily.

Regular foot traffic will increase during the week, with a peak attendance period on Friday and Saturday nights. The increase in foot traffic in the twilight and nighttime hours will supplement the strong daytime lunch foot traffic to make the retail and restaurant rentals in the town more appealing.

Initially, there will need to be an increase in evening foot traffic by creating a regular pattern usage of the downtown before the theater opens. A regular series of promotions in the evening hours to establish a “standard event” will enable the theater, when it opens, to be the anchor of the strategy, and not the solitary entity.

I have also applied for $15,000 to establish a standard event in the downtown on Friday Nights. I hope that, if awarded, street performers and an increased number of artists will enable the nightlife to be reinvigorated. There is a strong hospitality presence in the downtown, with some offering nighttime entertainment. It is definitely not a stretch to assume that an arts and entertainment district could be created.

The downtown is in an enterprise zone. There will be 25 percent tax credits available for investment in commercial portions of buildings. Additional tax credits on a state and federal level for the historic restoration of the buildings in the national register district could result in 65 percent tax credits on some portions of the building.

The real estate in the downtown is undervalued and has a high commercial vacancy rate, which will make it attractive to artists. A plan for development of an arts district would hasten the activity.  In conjunction with a concerted effort to establish more foot traffic in the evening, arts retail and hospitality industries could grow. Through the former Main Street program, this was the direction the marketing strategy was headed.

Implementing a program of technical assistance in securing the funding, tax credits and other incentives could increase real estate activity, creating more demand. I thought with buildings going for $30,000 for 1,600 square feet with three apartments above, there was a possibility to play monopoly and effectuate the sale of some of the real estate.

The best part of the project is that there is a 75 percent tax credit for the donations to the theater. The theater is interesting. It has a roof leak and it has some asbestos issues. I have two grants submitted to fix the roof as an emergency measure, and I believe I have identified funding for the asbestos removal.

The Mid Mon-Valley Cultural Trust bought the two buildings next to the theater and they provide flexibility for the usage. There is no real lobby in the 1,000-seat theater, and the restrooms are not handicapped accessible. There was a need for an elevator to alleviate the handicap issue, but with the two adjacent buildings, it was easy to create accessible bathrooms and forego the elevator in the near term.

I am still in the planning phase, but people seem to be receptive to it. I plan to have the theater start construction July 2014. There currently is a need to form an operational committee, as well as a more generic arts committee to deal with the promotions.

The town is a former Main Street community that ended when the BID legislation passed, but was not enacted by council. The commercial revitalization group that was previously the Main Street group has just phased out. The former main street manager is now the borough manger, so it is kind of a mixed bag working there. Maybe it is better that they do not have an existing group, because they might have another plan.  In this case, there is no existing plan, and no existing group, so I have a clean slate and no one else coming forward with an alternative plan.