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On the Ground: Can art have an economic impact in Germantown?

Joe Martin shows the desired place for the Mural

Joe Martin

Martin shows how a nearby mural has lifted the appearance of the area

Martin in front of the Acclaim Academy

The Acclaim Academy

Martin goes on to explain that if all tennants followed suit the block would look spectacular

A lot of neighborhoods dream of an influx of artists -- in their search for affordable work space and urban character, they are often the harbinger of good things to come for an area. Germantown is lucky to have a vibrant, growing community of creative types, and that energy is bleeding into innovative efforts to integrate the arts and economic development. 

Economic interest driven by the arts is admittedly difficult to quantify, but local business founder Joseph Martin is making the leap with a pilot program that has many possible short and long-term benefits, both for his business and for the Germantown corridors at large. 

Martin, who currently resides in Wilmington, DE, was born in Germantown on Pomona Street and grew up near the intersection of Broad and Olney Streets. About two and a half years ago, he launched Acclaim Academy, an early-learning center near the corner of Germantown and Chelten Avenues that currently serves about 150 local children.

"It was my brainchild to look to provide quality education to inner-city children," says the Penn State MBA. His academy is distinctive for the phonics, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese lessons kids get alongside more traditional kindergarten readiness programs. 

"In this neighborhood, the more children I can push towards private school or better education, the less prison cells we'll need," he says. 

Now Martin is teaming with local real estate developer Stan Smith (a partner of Ken Weinstein at Philly Office Retail) to spearhead a "total facelift" for the neighborhood's forbidding nighttime visage. 

Martin's arts initiative has its roots in a recent community meeting headed by 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, focused on improvements to the Chelten and Germantown Avenue business corridors.

"There was a discussion of what to do with the security gates," says Martin. After-hours, "every business has these solid metal gates. It's kind of depressing. It's like a war zone."

Leaders at the community meeting had city-sanctioned suggestions for business-owners to remedy this unwelcoming look, including removing the gates altogether, or replacing the existing solid gates with ones that allow passers-by to see into the building. But if practical or financial issues render that problematic, a third option was to decorate the gates.

"Trying to replace the security gate is a very big expense," Martin cautions, so the idea of murals on the gates made financial as well as aesthetic sense. "I thought it would be great if we could initiate having an art walk, where those driving or walking by can go down the avenue and see quality artwork on the security gates."

Eventually, Smith hopes to secure city or bank funding for murals up and down the corridors. (This mural project was recently completed on a stretch of Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia.)

But "that could take awhile," Martin says ruefully. He hopes that if one business-owner steps up to demonstrate the potential of the project, it will be easier to get others on board – and find funding.

Martin, who is enthusiastic about finding a Germantown artist to decorate his gates, has already met with a few and is hoping to garner more proposals for a project that may employ one or more artists for a series of weeks. 
He likes the idea of an image that lets the viewer feel as if they're looking into the store, but he doesn't want a literal representation of his facility's insides.

"It'll be historical, like one section of the grates would be a grandmother figure…sitting there in a rocking chair, reading a book to a bunch of kids," he suggests. "Another grate could be a historical figure standing in a library, holding a book open." 

He envisions high-quality images that could be lit up all night: "Now you've just transformed a very military-like block into a museum."

Martin admits that some business owners might be slow to appreciate the benefits of a major upgrade that's visible only when the store is closed. But he predicts several indirect benefits from the murals, including a chance for residents to take a greater interest in their surroundings, and not drop trash. People who stop to look at the image will become curious about the facility inside: "That may transfer to business – they may want to come and see the store when it's open and talk to the business owner," he explains.

According to Andy Trackman, board president of the Germantown United Community Development Corporation (founded in fall of 2011), employing artists for projects like Acclaim Academy's means an economic benefit that goes beyond beautification.

"It's taking what's there, what's grown organically from the bottom up -- it's not from the top down," Trackman says of giving artists an integral role at the ground floor of development efforts, rather than relying solely on more traditional, large-scale government or economic initiatives. 

"Especially with so many government cutbacks, I see Germantown United being able to leverage the creativity in the community to beautify the place, and that will generate economic interest," he adds. 

"The idea of promoting the artists to be successful business people helps the whole economy," he says. "Artists are also not only business people; they're consumers. They're shopping, they're eating."

And, as Trackman notes, unlike many other professionals who make long commutes to the workplace and maintain a home elsewhere, many successful artists live, shop and eat close to their work-sites.  

"The idea is to build that synergy," he says of artists' work boosting the look of a neighborhood at the same time that their dollars are locally invested. 

In perhaps slightly less quantifiable terms, Trackman adds that "artists are cool to be around, and other people see that." Plus, artists are prime members of "a community that cares about how it looks," yet another reason to involve them in civic improvements and facilitate their residence. They're natural fixer-uppers who are often first on the scene in developing neighborhoods, and are especially sensitive to the visual vibe. 

Trackman, himself an accomplished piano-player, has taken steps to connect GUCDC with local creative types through his role as liaison to the Germantown Artists Roundtable, an artist-led organization that has been gaining traction and fostering events since late 2011. But he admits that GUCDC efforts to revitalize local business corridors with greater investment in the arts are in relative infancy.

"Is enough of that happening here?" he asks of arts and development partnerships. "No."

But is an arts-driven revitalization on the way? "I think so. I really do. If we have anything to say about it."

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com/. Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

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