Puppets are leading the way to a revitalized Westwood.
Cincinnati’s largest neighborhood aims to transform its historic business district into a “Family Arts District” anchored by headquarters for Madcap Puppets in the old Cincinnati Bell Exchange Building. When the new theater, classrooms and exhibit hall open in 2016, Artistic and Executive Director John Lewandowski says, Madcap expects to draw 40,000 people annually to the space.
Even before it opens, the project is fueling new investment and energy in the business district, which is in the shape of a triangle formed by Montana Avenue at the base, Harrison Avenue on the east and Epworth Avenue on the west.
The City of Cincinnati gave Madcap $500,000 toward its $2.2 million project last spring. Why such a sizable investment?
It’s “art-onomics,” says Mayor John Cranley, riffing on a favorite topic of Cincinnati Parks Director Willie Carden, who talks about “park-onomics” — a park’s ability to attract people and new developments to the area around it.
Cranley says arts-led neighborhood revitalization has worked in Mt. Adams, where audiences are drawn to Playhouse in the Park; in West Price Hill, with its Covedale Theater; and at Music Hall and Ensemble Theatre, which pulled audiences into Over-the-Rhine long before the most recent wave of economic activity there. It’s happening now in the Price Hill’s Incline District, where the 220-seat Warsaw Federal Incline Theater will open in June, and in Kennedy Heights, where a major expansion of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center is under way.
Arts leader to community leader
Lewandowski arrived at Madcap Cincinnati in 2006 from Geneva, Switzerland, knowing one of his jobs would be to find the growing group of puppeteers a new home — something bigger its current space in a former bank on Glenmore Avenue. He put together a sales pitch and shopped the Madcap project around to different neighborhoods.
“We have a lot we can offer a neighborhood … we can be an economic driver,” he told prospective partners.
Though Westwood had been Madcap’s home for all of its 30-plus years, staying there was anything but a sure thing.
Then Westwood became interested in filling the long-empty but architecturally significant 20,000-square-foot Bell Building. With assistance from a $340,000 city grant, Westwood Community Urban Redevelopment Commission (WestCURC) was able to acquire the building and turned it over to Madcap in late 2012.
“It offered us the potential to expand and to have the kinds of series, a theater, an exhibit hall in one location,” Lewandowski says. “And the community was strongly behind us, which was critical for a theater.”
Along the way, Lewandowski became not only Madcap’s advocate but Westwood’s and one of the architects of its Family Arts District. He’s now president of the board of WestCURC.
“One of the many exciting things about the project was that John has stepped so much out of his traditional role as leader of his organization and adopted the role of being a visionary for a community,” says Alecia Kintner, president and CEO of ArtsWave, “and taken on all the challenges that went with that.”
Momentum building, patience required
The old Bell Building where Madcap will make its home is at the top of Westwood’s business district triangle. Westwood Town Hall, with a large green plaza area, sits at the triangle’s base across Montana from Westwood Elementary School and the Westwood Library Branch. Top to bottom, the distance is only about one-tenth of a mile.
The decline of district began as far back as the 1980s. The surrounding neighborhood experienced a loss of population, home ownership and property values and an increase in crime rates.
WestCURC Executive Director Elizabeth Bartley says that when she came to the project as a consultant for Madcap several years ago there were signs of disinvestment and, among neighbors, discouragement. But the Bell Building/Madcap deal produced optimism and renewed community activity.
Her role initially was to create a longitudinal study that would map over time the impact of Madcap’s acquisition of and move into the old Bell Building, along with subsequent changes.
“From a university researcher point of view, it was an amazing opportunity,” says Bartley, part of the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati. “You rarely get where you can go in and see something where nothing’s happened yet and you can set that baseline and really be able to start understanding specific actions and how they affect change.
“If you have 40,000 people a year coming to one spot in one neighborhood who weren’t going there before … what would that mean?”
Personally, Bartley, a Walnut Hills resident, became excited by what was happening in Westwood and stayed involved. Last summer, she became the first-ever executive director of WestCURC.
Spaces in the business district are beginning to fill in:
• WestCURC recently acquired the old firehouse at the corner of Epworth and Junietta avenues and hopes to attract a restaurant with appeal to families into the space.
• Jim Gunnarson expects to begin construction soon on Westwood’s second brewery, Bridgetown Brew Works, at a large site at 3044 Harrison Ave. once home to Wullenweber Motors. Gunnarson says that when he opens his tasting room he’ll offer four to six of his own beers, along with his own root beer. There’s space to grow into several different phases of the business.
“We searched a long time for an ideal location and ended up in Westwood with a friend’s help,” Gunnarson says. “We are excited to be part of the future success of the community.”
• The brewery will be across the street from the Henke Winery and Restaurant, 3077 Harrison Ave., considered one of the country’s top urban wineries. Henke has been the district’s mainstay for a dozen years.
• The Broadhope Art Collective, with classes for children and adults and artists’ work for sale, moved to 3022 Harrison Ave. in late 2012, around the same time Madcap took possession of the Bell Building.
• The plaza outside Westwood Town Hall is primed for even more activities. The sixth annual Westwood Art Show last September experienced its largest crowd ever, while the second annual Deck the Hall event in late November featured a choral concert showcasing five neighborhood churches. The neighborhood group Westwood Works was involved in both.
Seeing a bigger impact for the arts
Cranley believes an arts-fueled renaissance can be replicated in neighborhoods across the city.
“I think there’s an opportunity in places like Price Hill, Westwood, Madisonville, Evanston, if we can make them safe and offer a destination reason to come there,” Cranley says. “That’s where art is so powerful. It almost acts like destination retail.”
Bartley’s study quotes Americans for the Arts data from 2012: On average, every ticket sold to an arts event generates an additional $26 in spending in the neighborhood, provided there are amenities.
While people are willing to bring restaurants and coffee shops to a neighborhood, Cranley says, the owners will need a steady source of customers to survive.
“It’s these arts institutions that can bring in new customers,” Cranley says. “That’s the essence of art-onomics.”
ArtsWave’s Kintner wants arts groups to understand the role they can play in leading and catalyzing economic activity.
“Any time an organization is looking at facilities, there’s an opportunity to look around at existing buildings … and to see who unlikely partners might be,” she says. “There’s an opportunity to take stock of other community assets we can leverage.”
In Westwood, it starts with the Madcap puppets, their stories and kids giggling at their antics and joining them on stage. What ultimately creates that more vibrant neighborhood is when visitors and residents can eat, shop and participate in activities in and around Town Hall.
Bartley says more young families are moving into Westwood, attracted by strong housing stock at reasonable prices and more places for families to go just makes sense.
“I can’t wait to go to a Family Arts District,” Kintner says.
Where to see Madcap Puppets: The next public performances will feature “Under the Bonsai Tree” at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center March 21 and Cincinnati Art Museum’s Fath Auditorium March 28-29. Tickets are $8. Madcap also tours to schools and to 15-20 states each year. Get more information here.
Madcap’s free shows are a longstanding favorite during ArtsWave’s Sampler weekends, which in 2015 returns as a single weekend of free arts activities March 7-8.