Conneaut Lake arts scene to blossom courtesy of national grant

The Meadville Tribune
By Jean Shanley
Monday, July 21, 2014

Conneaut Lake — Conneaut Lake Community Development Committee will receive $75,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts through its Our Town Project.

Funds will be used for a variety of art projects designed to facilitate arts engagement and plans for a public art trail adjacent to the Water Street district.

Bill Eldridge, chairman of the CLCDC, and Amara Geffen, professor of art at Allegheny College and director of the Art and Environment Initiative of the Greater Meadville Area, are both excited and pleased about the grant.

“These funds will allow us to incorporate a community arts component into the revitalization plans for the Water Street and Fireman’s Beach,” Eldridge said.  He said the project is consistent with plans to make the town more attractive and to spur economic growth in the borough.

Geffen serves as lead artist for the grant and work with artists Steve Prince, Ian Thomas and ethnographer Emily Yochim, all colleagues at Allegheny College; and with an Allegheny College student who serves as an art apprentice during the summer of 2015.

Geffen said the project fosters livability throughout nature and culture and involves two common art engagement events for both year-round and summer residents at the lake.

Events will be used to gather community stories and images, which will be integrated into the design and improvement of a public art trail connecting Ice House Park and the central downtown business district to Fireman’s Beach, Geffen said.

“We envision a series of sculpture that will include the opportunity to actively listen to/view some of the stories gathered during arts engagements with special focus on the history and ecology of the lake,” she said.

The first arts engagement is Oct. 8 at Conneaut Lake Middle School in conjunction with its Title 1 Reading Program.  Geffen said the time is not definite yet, but she believes it will be between 5 to 8 p.m.  David B. Hunt, nationally known organizer, storyteller and founder of the Community Building Storytelling Project, will assist with the arts-engagement events, Geffen said.

The location for the sculpture and art trail is still to be determined, Eldridge said.

National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu, who announced the plans to award grants, said Conneaut Lake is one of 66 grants awarded this year.  Grants totaled $5.073 million and reached 38 states.  Some 275 applications were received for the Our Town grant.

Chu said this year’s Our Town projects demonstrate that excellent art is as fundamental to a community’s success as land use, transportation, education, housing, infrastructure and public safety, helping build stronger communities that are diverse in geography and character.

She said the Our Town funds art-based community development project in a way that is authentic, equitable and augments existing local assets.  Since Our Town’s inception in 2011 and including this year, the NEA will have awarded 256 grants, totaling more than $21 million in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

“The Borough of Conneaut Lake demonstrates the best in creative community development and whose work will have a valuable impact on its community,” Chu said.  “Through Our Town funding, arts organizations continue to spark vitality that support neighborhoods and public spaces, enhancing a sense of place for residents and visitors alike.”

The grant is the latest in a series of grants received by the CLCDC for a multi-year revitalization project planned for Conneaut Lake, which includes improvements at Fireman’s Beach, infrastructure, underground utilities and other projects to improve life in the borough.

Previous grants received now total about $1.4 million, and the CLCDC has raised almost $150,000 in private contributions in its campaign for funds to be used for the community development and revitalization project.

In addition, applications already have been made for several grants totaling $5 million.  Other grant applications for another $2 million are being prepared, Eldridge said, noting that the project is an ongoing one.

Eldridge said work has already started on the revitalization with engineering work done in some areas and still being done in other areas.  When the engineering work is completed and designs for Water Street and the downtown area completed, another community meeting will be held to review the plans.

Eldridge said public reaction to the CLCDC’s proposals has been 99 percent positive, then adding, “How can it not be positive?”

One of the first projects in the overall plan to be done is the storm water drainage system on Water Street, which is presently inadequate or non-existent, Eldridge said.  That project will be done in phases so it will not shut down the business district.

Eldridge said work at Fireman’s Beach will be done in the off-season, not during the peak of the tourist season, but no date for that work has been set.  The storm water drainage system comes first.

He said the master plan looks at the whole town and the program will be ongoing for a long time.  Committee members welcome questions and feedback about the proposal and “for the most part, are getting it.”

The committee, headed by Eldridge, has 25 active members and meets the last Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at the Conneaut Lake Borough Office.