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Cascade: No. 55, Summer/Fall 2004

Arts District Invigorates Millville's Downtown

Millville, a city of 27,000 residents located on the Maurice River in Cumberland County, NJ, is making good progress in transforming a moribund downtown into a vibrant arts district.

Kim Warker, Ph.D., Millville's planning director, recalled that six years ago, city officials conceived a home-grown strategy to persuade visitors to spend a full day in the area instead of a half-day touring Wheaton Village or the Army Air Field Museum. Wheaton Village contains many examples of fine glass produced when Millville was the center of a thriving regional glassmaking industry in the late 1800s.

In 1998, the Millville Development Corporation, a nonprofit city affiliate that oversees the arts district, acquired a department store and an adjacent building, which were converted by a local developer into a gallery and community center known as the Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts. Furthering revitalization of the same block, the city enlisted Cumberland County College to open a ceramic studio and the Cumberland County Improvement Authority to renovate a vacant bank building into the authority's offices.

Marianne K. Lods, coordinator of the Glasstown Center Arts District, which organizes Third Fridays, a monthly event that regularly draws 1,500 to 2,000 people, said: "It's like an old-fashioned town on these Friday evenings, and it has a really good community feel to it." The district also holds free concerts and a fine arts festival.

Since 1998, 48 new businesses have located in the arts district, a two-block by six-block area that is mostly dedicated to the visual arts. These businesses-primarily galleries and retail stores-include eight that relocated from other parts of Millville. The arts district has flourished despite the presence of a nearby regional mall, which includes a Wal-Mart and several other "big box" stores.

Last year, business openings in the arts district consisted of six galleries or studios, three retail stores, three professional offices, and five restaurants, including the upscale Winfield's, located in a former Woolworth's building.

Downtown property values have risen three to four times since 2000, and private investors are showing strong interest, Lods said. In a promising sign for Millville's future, the district is attracting a new generation of business owners in their 30s and 40s, she added.

In a community development offshoot of the arts district, the city is requiring artists who receive "pioneer artist" grants to paint murals and engage in beautification activities in the city's neighborhoods. Warker added that "both the city and the neighborhood associations are considering additional ways in which public art can become a significant part of the center-city neighborhoods."

Well before the arts district was conceived, the city had taken actions to improve the area's infrastructure and maximize the beauty of its riverfront location. In the mid-1980s, the city used state funding to add new sidewalks, street lights, parking, and landscaping and to acquire, demolish, and remediate a gas station and recycling center along Millville's waterfront. The city then used funds from a state-designated urban enterprise zone program to pay for brick sidewalks and lighting and help owners repair business facades.

"The pieces of the puzzle we had been working on for years came together at the same time," Warker explained. "The infrastructure was there. But we never envisioned how big this would get. The market of artists that Millville was trying to attract was a tremendous one, but it was hidden under a rock. The artists were desperate for a common venue where they could be together. Once we reached out to them, the response was overwhelming. This invigorated us to go on."

Warker said that the artists viewed Millville's century-old downtown buildings "as irreplaceable pieces of history, not as white elephants-the older and more dilapidated the buildings, the better. The artists looked at the buildings and saw positive features, while most people saw negative things." Most of Millville's new artists live and work in the same properties.

Local residents were not easily impressed. "When we worked on the first block, they thought it was a waste of public money," Warker said. "With the second block, they admitted that the downtown was starting to look better. With the third block, they understood there was a method to our madness. In time, the residents and the city government realized that Millville could be extraordinary-not just average or OK."

Residents got more enthusiastic as their children benefited from the arts district. Early on, the city created an annual summer arts program for young people and arts and craft programs linked to the schools. Some students are now pursuing arts-related education, partly with the help of federally funded job-training programs.

A substantial marketing campaign has been funded largely through state grants, including several from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Last fall, the state and city approved $215,000 for an annual district marketing and advertising campaign.

Now that the district has been established, maintaining its interesting and vibrant character is a long-term challenge, Warker noted. Another challenge is downtown property speculation, which is pricing some artists out and is leading the city to explore the feasibility of developing affordable artists' housing.

In January, the city started a pilot program to provide low-interest loans of up to $10,000 for establishment of bed and breakfast lodging in the arts district. The program is targeted to owners of single-family residences located in residential areas surrounding the commercial district.

The city also plans to expand the boundaries of the district this year and create a farmers market that features local seasonal produce to tourists and residents alike. Biking and walking trails are being constructed along the river, while a marina that should attract many boaters will open next year. An artists' guild is also being formed to improve communication among city leaders, residents, and business owners. The city is exploring prospects for renovating a 96-year-old cinema once used for vaudeville as a multi-purpose facility.

Warker, who holds a doctorate in urban affairs and public policy from the University of Delaware, observed that during the district's development "we all changed our idea of art. We've come to see the value of art in and of itself, rather than just another redevelopment tool."

Noting that the arts district appeals to people who grew up in the area and are returning as retirees, Lods concluded: "One of the most important things about the arts district is the sense of pride that residents feel. This is a pretty neat place to live."

For information, contact Kim Warker at (856) 825-7000, ext. 329 or kwarker@ci.millville.nj.us, or Marianne K. Lods at (856) 293-0556 or marianne@glasstownartsdistrict.com.