Fitchburg pinning revival hopes on arts and culture
One-time mill city looks ahead in effort to rekindle past vitality
FITCHBURG MAYOR Stephen DiNatale’s office bears all the markings of the workspace of a small-city Massachusetts leader working hard to pull up his community, a place that has struggled for years following the exodus of industries that once made mill towns like this hum with economic vigor.
There are sketches of planned development projects, a big photograph showing downtown Fitchburg back in its pre-World War II heyday, and in one corner a group of shiny ceremonial shovels standing against the wall, mementos from recent groundbreaking celebrations that DiNatale is anxious to replicate. The affable 68-year-old former state representative is laser-focused on economic development, and in a hurry for it to happen. “I’m not a patient guy,” said DiNatale.
It’s easy to see why. Median household income is $55,000 in Fitchburg, $22,000 below the statewide average. Meanwhile, the pandemic has hit the city hard, with its 15.5 percent unemployment rate in August the eighth highest in the state.
DiNatale and other Fitchburg leaders are determined to restore the city’s standing as a vibrant hub of North-Central Massachusetts, and they say a focused effort on arts and culture will play an important role in that. It’s a bet that lots of economically distressed communities have made, fueled by the example of cities that have looked to the “creative economy” for economic salvation.
The idea gained lots of steam following publication of city theorist Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, which argued that arts and other creative-economy sectors were key to urban revival in the 21st century. Fitchburg, with its often desolate downtown streets, may not seem, at first blush, like a place where the creative-economy could find much of a foothold. But the hilly city of 40,000, which sits along the Nashua River 30 miles north of Worcester, has some big things going for it that make the arts and culture venture more than a urban-revival pipe dream.
Fitchburg boasts a nearly 100-year-old art museum, whose collection ranges from ancient Egypt to modern Massachusetts painters. A boarded-up former middle school that sits directly across from the museum is slated to be converted, along with two other adjacent buildings, into 62 units of living and work space for artists. And Fitchburg State University, which enrolls 3,400 undergraduates and about 1,600 graduate students, recently purchased a long-shuttered vaudeville-era theater on Main Street, with plans for a multimillion-dollar renovation to make it home to regional productions.
Marc Dohan, the executive director of NewVue Communities, a nonprofit Fitchburg community development organization spearheading the artists’ housing project, said DiNatale is hardly a pie in the sky dreamer and the strategy is already bearing fruit.
“He’s not just an arts and culture mayor. He’s an economic development mayor, and he sees this as a way to improve the city,” said Dohan.
ARTS AND CULTURE BOOKENDS
What all of them said was they wanted to “to give back to the community,” said Capasso. “They all grew up in Fitchburg when it was a great place. They all watched it go down the chute.” But they saw that the city — and the museum — had something to offer, and they were committed to being part of that.
The charge from the trustees after he was hired, said Capasso: “Don’t just revitalize the museum. Figure out how the museum can help revitalize the city.”
Capasso has been busy since figuring how to do that. He said those efforts have been greatly boosted by an usually collaborative spirit among city leaders, higher education officials, private developers, and the arts community that is starting to bubble up in Fitchburg.
“I found a whole bunch of people who were willing to think creatively in new ways,” he said. Rather than lamenting the economic losses the city has sustained, he said, they seemed to understand “it’s time to apply energy towards figuring out what Fitchburg should be for the century we’re actually in.”
The museum, which was founded in 1925 using a bequest from Eleanor Norcross, the daughter of a successful Fitchburg mayor, who had herself enjoyed some success as a painter, has complemented its worldwide collection by focusing on expanding its showings of work by contemporary New England artists. That has included an effort to include work by artists from a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, something the museum had not always paid much attention to, despite more than a quarter of Fitchburg residents being Hispanic.
It’s all part of a much more conscious effort to be part of the broader arts-focused community-building underway in Fitchburg.
Capasso, who talks regularly with the mayor and other city officials, university leaders, and community groups, is working not only to burnish the museum’s reputation in the art world, but to have it fully embrace its role as an important nonprofit institution in Fitchburg. Lots of museums, he said, put the artwork at the center of their work. Their view is that “art is the client,” he said. Capasso said the Fitchburg museum is committed to “using art to serve people.”
A local neighborhood association now holds its regular meetings at the museum. The museum also launched a program with the Fitchburg schools, underwriting the admission fee so that every 4th and 7th grade student in the district makes an annual trip to the museum. Capasso has also set up an area of the museum where they rotate artwork by Fitchburg school students. “Kids in our country get a lot of validation for academics and athletics. Art kids don’t get much,” he said.
“There are many spokes to the wheel of revitalization,” Capasso said of Fitchburg’s economic redevelopment efforts. “You can’t let the arts do it all by themselves. It’s not a powerful enough segment.” But it can, he said, “be part of a much larger whole.”
While the museum is the most obvious pillar of Fitchburg’s arts and culture effort, Fitchburg State University serves as the other anchor of that larger whole.
The two institutions bookend the city’s downtown, the museum a block off Main Street at the western end of the business district and the university perched on a hill a half mile off Main Street at the eastern end of downtown. Fitchburg State has long had somewhat of an arm’s length relationship to the city. Commuter students often come and go from the campus without ever setting foot downtown, and the 1,700 undergraduates who live on campus — many of them from communities within 50 or 60 miles of Fitchburg — often stay cloistered on the campus there during the week and head home on the weekends.
In 2015, the art museum and university inked a memorandum of agreement to collaborate more closely and be part of an effort to boost the city and region. The agreement included granting university students free admission to the museum, which would also begin serving as the de facto art museum for the school, which does have a museum or gallery of its own.
Richard Lapidus, the president of Fitchburg State, said the university has for several years been exploring ideas that would “create some gravitational pull” to draw visitors to Fitchburg in the same way other universities often help make communities a regional destination for cultural events, dining, or nightlife. In 2015, a year after Lapidus’s arrival, the school laid down a huge marker in that effort. It bought an entire block of buildings on Main Street, which includes several retail storefronts and is anchored by the Fitchburg Theater, a 1,700-seat theater that was a grand stage for local productions when it opened in the 1920s but has sat empty and deteriorating since it closed in the late 1980s, serving in its last incarnation as a three-screen multiplex movie theater.
The university is planning a $35 million renovation with the goal of returning the theater to its original splendor and developing it as a regional theater draw. Lapidus said the idea is for a smaller version of the Hanover Theater, Worcester’s flagship production stage.
The university moved into the Theater Block complex a large workspace for its video game design program, the only one of its kind in Massachusetts public higher education. It also opened a center dubbed the “Idea Lab,” incubator space that offers resources for university students, faculty, and members of the broader community to work on potential business startup ideas.
It’s a way to “create a different front door for ourselves” and a way to “plant a flag” downtown, said Lapidus.
A DOWNTOWN PIVOT
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to economic vitality in downtown Fitchburg. The good news is that the streetscape is largely intact, with the 19th century edifices that line Main Street, including some magnificent Victorian architecture from the city’s industrial heyday, looking much as they did when the city was a thriving center of paper and textile manufacturing. The bad news is that even in the pre-COVID days the sidewalks were often deserted, the bustle once created by department stores and other downtown commercial fixtures largely gone.
DiNatale, who grew up in next-door Leominster, lights up when he talks about a time when Main Street was alive with the flurry of foot traffic shown in the photograph he keeps in his office from Fitchburg in the 1930s or ‘40s. “This was the destination city growing up,” he said of its place in the life of the North-Central Massachusetts region. “It was an event to go to Fitchburg, and downtown was the place to be.”
DiNatale is enough of a realist to know the days of big department stores drawing people downtown in places like Fitchburg are over. But the forward-looking pragmatist in him says it can nonetheless be something much more alive than what’s there now. “It will never return to that,” he said of the image in the big black and white photo. “But we’re nimble and we’re going to pivot.”
One literal pivot the city is embarking on, with help from a $3 million state grant, is returning Main Street to a two-way road along with other changes to make the street more pedestrian friendly. The change in the 1960s to a one-way street, say DiNatale and city leaders, only helped to speed traffic through Fitchburg.
DiNatale said the goal is to again bring people downtown, but it won’t be to shop at big stores, but instead to eat a restaurant or shop at small stores offering unique wares. The city also wants to have more people on the streets downtown by having more of them live there. In the last two years, 96 new units of housing have been built and 330 units permitted in the downtown area. The City Council recently approved new zoning to allow an additional 1,000 units of new housing downtown. “The more housing we can provide, the commercial retail will follow,” said DiNatale.
Some of the housing that’s on tap will not only contribute to overall greater density downtown, but will be another element of the arts and culture pivot DiNatale envisions. The boarded up former B.F. Brown Junior High School, which sits right across the street from the Fitchburg Art Museum entrance, is “a billboard that says ‘blight,’” said Capasso, hardly an inviting setting for the regional museum-goers he’s trying to attract. But if things stay on track, the building will soon make a very different statement. The former school, along with an adjacent building that once served as the city stables and another that was an annex to the city high school, are being developed into 62 rental units of artists live/work space.
The project is being developed by NewVue Communities, the local nonprofit development agency, and rent for the units will be kept affordable — ranging from $800 a month for a studio to $1,400 or $1,500 a month for a three-bedroom apartment. (“Artists have families, too,” said Dohan, the NewVue director, about the larger units.)
Dohan said market studies showed strong demand for artist housing in the area. While Rise of the Creative Class gave cities the idea that they could drive revitalization by wooing artists, Fitchburg leaders say their initiative is aimed at helping artists who already there thrive and contribute to the city’s comeback. “We don’t want to open this building with 60-something apartments and end up with artists that come here from Somerville, from Jamaica Plain and displace the local artists,” said Francisco Ramos, a community organizer at NewVue.
Three years ago, Florida published a sequel to his 2002 book titled The New Urban Crisis. In it, he laments the gaping inequality in New York, San Francisco, and other big winners in the urban renaissance of recent decades. “I totally and completely underestimated the power of the urban revival,” Florida said in an interview by email. But Fitchburg is a long way from seeing those kinds of downsides, and arts and culture can play a vital role in “economy building as well as placemaking” in such communities, said Florida.
As much as the museum and university serve as important anchors for Fitchburg’s arts and culture initiative, the artists’ housing makes an equally important statement about the effort. Using the creative economy to drive revitalization, say local leaders and national experts, is not just a matter of having an obvious draw like a regional art museum, but also depends on raising the visibility of the local arts and culture scene. That includes everything from artisans and artists selling their work to locally produced food that helps give the city a distinct identity and unique way to draw people to spend time — and money — there.
One good example of that came last year, when a neglected alleyway that connects Main Street with another main thoroughfare running parallel to it was transformed into a sidewalk gallery by installing 30 large murals of locally-produced artwork. The Activate Mill Street initiative was spearheaded by a state-sponsored program aimed at reviving designated districts in Gateway Cities. The Transformative Development Initiative, operated by the state’s economic development and finance agency, MassDevelopment, contributed $40,000 to the Mill Street effort on top of $50,000 that was raised locally. The organizers had to winnow the field, with twice as many artists applying as they were able to select — another indication, say local leaders, of a large latent arts community in Fitchburg.
Along with the murals, there were more than two dozen events tied to the project, including a music series at a small plaza at one end of the alleyway, pop-up al fresco dining with tables set up on the plaza and meals served by a local caterer, and free yoga classes on Saturdays.
“It’s symbolic, I think, of change in Fitchburg,” said Kim Jones, co-owner of Strong Style Coffee, a two-year-old cafe that looks out on the plaza where the events took place. “It showed Main Street being a place you come and enjoy and it’s bright and it’s colorful.”
Also very much symbolic of that change is her cafe, which increasingly serves as a civic gathering spot and important outpost of the city’s nascent arts effort. “Coffee is what we do,” said Jones. “But more than that, our staff is so committed to Fitchburg and I’m so committed to Fitchburg that we really just try to put community first.”
Jones, 40, who grew up next door in Lunenburg and graduated from Fitchburg State, has turned Strong Style into a vibrant community center, hosting musical performances, poetry readings, and family-friendly events that are a draw for all ages. “This became a place where the community feels comfortable,” she said.
NewVue, the Fitchburg nonprofit that is developing the artists’ housing, has also launched a program to help local artists with everything from marketing to business plans. The organization’s “art stewards” program consists of a series of eight sessions geared toward giving artists who often work in isolation the kind of support and camaraderie those in other sectors often enjoy.
At an August session of the program — which moved to Zoom after the onset of the pandemic — Eugene Finney, who used to work at the Fitchburg Art Museum and now helps artists get their work placed in corporate settings in the Boston area, was the guest speaker.
“Artists are very creative, but how do you complete a tax form, how do you market your work, how do you create an arts business?” said Jessie Olson, a local writer who was taking part in the art stewards program.
Dohan, the NewVue executive director, said the art steward idea, like the murals commissioned along Mill Street, is aimed at helping to build the Fitchburg arts scene from the ground up. “We have arts and culture that’s already here,” said Dohan. “So this builds on those assets rather than trying to make us into something we’re not.”
Jennifer Vey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the way to harness the full power of arts and culture to contribute to economic revitalization is to first pursue community-building efforts like the art steward program that supports local residents. “If you do it well for the people that live there, the tourism will come,” said Vey, director of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking at Brookings. “Art is a way to generate civic pride and engagement, and to foster a sense of community identity. I think if you do that well, and that’s reason in and of itself to do it, you will have the added benefit of drawing others to your community, who will come to patronize your restaurants and businesses.”
While Fitchburg leaders hope to bring back the vitality that once existed downtown, they know it won’t be driven by the sorts of businesses that thrived there decades ago. “What’s more convenient than sitting at your computer and clicking on it and having a package delivered to your home?” said Dohan. “You can’t compete on convenience anymore. What you’re aiming for is to create an experience of some kind, something that’s unique and cannot be replicated. That’s what arts and culture is.”
“Back in the day, everyone bought everything on Main Street,” said Noah Koretz, director of MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative targeting Gateway Cities. “In the current online, large-scale retail world, the stuff that still manages to stay relevant and stays in business is stuff that’s small-scale and unique and experiential.”
That includes Kim Jones’s coffee shop along with the renovations to turn the Fitchburg Theater into a regional performance destination. And it includes a new business, Urban Fork, slated to open this fall on Main Street that will feature a state-of-the-art kitchen shared by local food entrepreneurs and a retail section where those products, including prepared meals, as well as other locally-sourced food products are sold.
“There’s so much you can incorporate into arts and culture,” said Matthew Fournier, a local developer who is building out the space, which his wife, Kelly Fournier, will operate. “It’s not just painting on a canvas,” said Fournier, who received a $160,000 grant for the project from the state’s Collaborative Workspace Program.
EYEING A CULTURAL PRIZE
In 2013, Fitchburg was turned down when it applied to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to have the downtown area recognized as a distinct “cultural district,” a designation made by the state agency that communities can use to secure access to various state programs, boost tourism, and encourage private development.
“They said, you’ve got the arts and culture,” said Capasso, the museum director. “You’ve got the architecture, you’ve got the theater. What you do not have is a livable and walkable downtown with the amenities one would expect in a cultural district. There’s no place to shop or get a drink. There’s nobody on the street. When you fix that, come back,” he said. “So that’s the challenge.”
But bringing vitality back to Main Street is somewhat of a chicken-and-egg challenge. Potential businesses are looking for signs of foot traffic that tell them there would be a market to tap, but people need a reason to stroll the streets. A vibrant downtown nightlife, said Lapidus, the university president, is something “our students are screaming for.”
City government itself has tried to help goose the market by showing its own commitment to Fitchburg’s revival and the idea that its downtown can again become a place to be. A $32 million renovation to the public library is part of that effort. But the showpiece is the $23.5 million renovation of Fitchburg City Hall that is now nearing completion. Nothing symbolized the retreat from Main Street more than the shuttering of the city’s own municipal headquarters eight years ago when most city offices, including the mayor’s, were exiled to temporary space in a former industrial building off Main Street. The ornate Greek Revival city hall, which dates to 1853, was in such rough shape that some in Fitchburg, including at least one city councilor, urged that it be torn down.
DiNatale was adamant in resisting such calls. “How can we be telling people to come to Main Street when we’re not even going to put our City Hall back there?” he said. “It’s a magnificent building, and it’s going to be what the people of Fitchburg deserve.”
“We talk a lot about market signals,” said Tom Skwierawski, the city’s director of community development. “It has made our job a lot easier when we’re trying to sell to a new property developer or convince the state to invest in our roadway redesign when we’ve got scaffolding up there,” he said of the City Hall project.
Skwierawski said a building a few doors down from City Hall recently sold and the buyer cited the renovations to the municipal government building and nearby Theater Block redevelopment and artists housing project in explaining what gave him confidence to make the deal. “So I think there’s sense that things are happening,” he said.
Fears that the pandemic could derail revitalization efforts in Fitchburg so far have not materialized. Fitchburg State has hired a construction manager and expects to finalize design work for the theater renovation by the end of the year. The artists’ housing project is moving forward, and Matt Fournier says he hopes to open the Urban Fork shared kitchen and retail space in October. Skwierawski said the city has even heard during the pandemic from two potential restaurant operators who may be interested in space near the Theater Block.
The pandemic may have slowed things down a little and “taken the foot off the gas pedal, but the vehicle’s still in drive and we’re moving,” said DiNatale.“It’s not quick-going work,” said Joe Ferguson, the director of Reimagine North of Main, a partnership of Fitchburg businesses, nonprofits, and city government working to revitalize the lower-income neighborhood just off Main Street. “But this disinvestment didn’t happen overnight, either.”
Patricia Pistone, the vice president of strategy and innovation at the Montachusett Opportunity Council, a local social service provider, said no one is naive about the challenges Fitchburg faces or views the arts effort as the single answer to what ails it. “Arts and culture isn’t going to be a magic bullet to revitalize Fitchburg or any other community,” said Pistone. “It needs to fit into a greater story. But I do feel momentum.”