When ArtsinStark CEO Robb Hankins arrives for a forum on the future of the Main Street corridor January 22, he is going to bring stories of business communities that were reborn with arts, entertainment, and music.
Canton is the ninth city he has actively been involved with in turning around worn out business districts with culture. The last three prior were, in order, Eugene, Oregon; Long Beach, California; and Hartford, Connecticut.
“I think if I gave you the one hour tour of downtown Canton and if you had any sense of what it looked like seven years ago, you would go, ‘This is incredible,’” Hankins said. “We just moved very quickly and we have been very successful. Don’t get me wrong, we have a long ways to go, but I think most Cantonians would say that what the arts and the chamber have done together downtown almost is inconceivable that this could have happened.”
When he arrived in Canton, there was one art gallery downtown that struggled for about four years. Today, there are 26 art galleries and studios, and a monthly party called First Fridays “which has turned into a total phenomenon. We are much smaller than Toledo and we do it every month.”
There have been 80 First Friday parties so far.
“Seven years ago, ArtsinStark went out and former a partnership with the chamber, which was trying to reinvent downtown Canton,” Hankins said. “Since we are the arts council, we said we could help because there are three things that we find works — they are live music, public art, and artist studios and galleries.
“And, you need to start thinking of the downtown of the future as having an entertainment focus, not a retail focus, not a big box office. It is special retail, it is downtown living, it is businesses and offices, but arts and entertainment are one of the drivers and it’s a destination. So, this chamber was very open-minded. I’ve dealt with chambers across America and many of them don’t understand the arts, don’t possibly see how they can help with economic development. This chamber, for whatever reason, perhaps like East Toledo, was very motivated to try something.
“I think it’s fair to say that downtown Canton is surrounded by rough neighborhoods, maybe not unlike East Toledo,” Hankins continued. “So, it’s not one of those neighborhoods where you have great neighborhoods right next to downtown. You have to make downtown work for people who come in, and you have to change downtown so people are living there.”
Hankins backs up Councilman Craig, who says having people in the streets can be safer than not having people in the streets.
“I think most people would say the same things about downtown Canton that they would say about East Toledo,” Hankins said. “It’s dark. I don’t know where to park. It looks unsafe to me, I hear about crimes happening in downtown Toledo or East Toledo. I’m nervous, so we’re all dealing with those issues.”
Craig added, “Think of the Warehouse District 10 years ago, and if you go back 15 years ago, the Warehouse District was almost scary. We can take Main Street from where it is now to better than the Warehouse District, and it will be less than 10 years. So guess what? I want to offer them Main Street. And, in 10 years, hopefully that area is full. Hopefully, it will spread to Euclid Street and Starr. If we do it for just a couple years that will change the face of Main Street.”
And, Craig says, since vertical development does not appear to be happening at the nearby 127-acre Marina District, maybe this would serve as a catalyst.
“We have decent crowds that come to East Toledo every night, but they are at The Docks. We have to get them to go one-third of a mile,” Craig said.
“In the past, with Connecting the Pieces (Local Initiatives Support Corporation project), we were depending on the Marina District reenergizing Main Street. You know what — we’re just going to turn it around. We’re going to let Main Street energize the Marina District. It’s like, ‘You guys aren’t doing anything? Guess what? We will.’”