Carving Out an Arts Hub
$50,000 NEA grant will create new district downtown
CHARLES TOWN — City leaders seeking to boost downtown as a one-of-a-kind destination for art and history are celebrating after winning a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Charles Town Mayor Peggy Smith led the effort to secure the money through the NEA’s highly competitive “Our Town” grants. She said it’s the first time a West Virginia community has won such funding.
“It’s exciting – a giant step forward,” Smith said. “The goal is to have more art functions in town, to draw more local citizens and to bring in more tourism, too. Art is a big tourism attraction.”
The project has its roots in last fall’s first-ever Artomatic@Jefferson, a free, month-long art event that attracted droves of artists and art lovers to a site off U.S. 340 between Charles Town and Harpers Ferry.
Smith said the artwork – and the turnout to see Artomatic@Jefferson – spurred her to pull aside Ginny Fite, who organized the event as then-president of what’s now the Jefferson Arts Council. “The very first thing I said to her was, ‘This is terrific – but we really need Artomatic downtown,’ ’’ the mayor said. “The crowds that were there every night! It was just wonderful – and downtown, we’d see a positive spinoff effect for restaurants and other businesses.”
To pursue the grant, Smith traveled to D.C. late last year to meet with NEA and White House officials about Charles Town’s efforts. With the money, the city will begin to create a downtown “Washington Heritage District” to better highlight places and activities linked to history, art and culture.
By rebranding Charles Town as a destination for art, culture and history, visitors as well as local residents will see the city in a new way, Smith said. NEA officials call the process – aimed at making communities more inviting “with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity [and] a distinct sense of place” – “creative placemaking.”
The city’s partners in the project are the Jefferson Art Council (formerly the Arts and Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County) and the Washington Street Artists Cooperative. An organizational meeting Friday with leaders of the two groups and Steve Brewer of the Old Opera House will get the project off and running, Smith said.
The grant also will help the city better highlight its unique history. Founding Father George Washington’s younger brother Charles founded Charles Town in 1786, donating four corner lots at the intersection of George and Washington streets for public use and naming several streets for himself and other members of the Washington family.
Smith said the new district will spotlight and tie together the city’s unique history as well as the art offerings in a six-block area around the Jefferson County Courthouse, from the Jefferson Arts Council’s Fire Hall Gallery and the historic Old Opera House, both on George Street, to the Jefferson County Museum at 200 E. Washington St.
A look at the four-point plan outlined in the grant:
1. Building up downtown. According to city leaders, the “Our Town” grant will boost downtown as a destination by attracting more artists from nearby big cities and do more to engage those associated with the city’s two major employers, American Public University and Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
“Charles Town will form a Washington Heritage District boundary and assess cultural and artistic assets within the area. The plan will identify how to attract artists from the Baltimore-Washington metro region, and how to incubate artists out of local galleries into new artist studios and shops on the historic main street.
“It will plan an artistic wayfaring signage system, including a new Community Arts bulletin board, and a footsteps of Charles Washington artistic sidewalk wayfaring project. It will include a game plan for attracting and involving the customers, visitors and workers of the area’s two largest business institutions – American Public University System, and Hollywood Casino into the downtown district.”
2. Making Charles Washington Hall into an arts showplace.
“The plan will evaluate historic, publicly owned Charles Washington Hall as a new center for arts, culture and tourism. This is a historic building on the corner of George and Washington streets designated by the Washington Family for public use.
With building restoration already designed with U.S. DOT TIGER funds and soon to be constructed with USDA and local bank financing, Charles Washington Hall will have a grand public events/arts space. With Our Town funding, Charles Town will evaluate how to make use of this space for expanded arts, cultural, and tourism activities.”
3. Bring Artomatic downtown.
Artomatic@Jefferson was held at Rock & Tile off U.S. 340 between Charles Town and Harpers Ferry, but the grant will let the city “determine how to bring Artomatic@Jefferson downtown to the new district. JAC’s Artomatic has such a heavy demand, by both artists petitioning to participate and the public, that it must be relocated to a larger space.” The ideal location for Artomatic, Smith said, may be the second floor of Charles Washington Hall on the corner of George and Washington streets.
4. Expand Charles Town’s annual Heritage Festival.
Leaders will explore possibilities, including expanding the fall Heritage Festival by possibly coordinating with the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce’s three-day Mountain Heritage Arts & Crafts Festival, which happens each year in late September.
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