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From abandoned pumping station to local arts mecca

The new Fringe Arts space at Delaware Ave and Race St

Construction has begun in the new space


A rendering sits inside the space

Gov. Ed Rendell

FringeArts President and Producing DirectorNick Stuccio

Mayor Michael Nutter


The unveiling on the building's official name

Last week, at a groundbreaking ceremony for Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe's new waterfront home, former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell admitted that he had his misgivings when the annual three-weekend performing arts festivals launched in 1997.

"I remember people came to me and said, 'They're starting this thing called the Fringe Festival,' and I said, 'Oh my gosh, there's gonna be arrests'," Gov. Rendell quipped. 

But as the enthusiasm for the newly rebranded "FringeArts" headquarters at the 110-year-old former pumping station at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard proves, these zany fall festivals have become a valuable piece of Philadelphia's economic as well as artistic development.

From 1903 until about 2005, the High Pressure Fire Service building pumped water (capable of jetting ten stories high) to red fire hydrants that dotted each block from Broad Street to the Delaware River, and from Race Street to Walnut Street. FringeArts purchased the site for $750,000 in June 2012.

Now decommissioned, the 10,000-square-foot red brick building is largely empty inside as the $7 million renovation (the organization is just $600,000 shy of its fundraising goal) commences. On Monday morning of last week, plastic sheets draped the metal rafters, staffers warned visitors of the floor's unsteady metal panels, yellow cages encircled the hanging light-bulbs and caution tape kept attendees away from a concrete ravine in the center of the building.

They have a long way to go, but FringeArts promises that their new home base will be ready in time for its coming out party at this fall's festival (running September 6-21).

The rehabbed facility will feature over 800 square feet of rehearsal space and a 240-seat theater and music venue that will host shows year-round. There will also be permanent administrative offices, space for art shows and a 125-seat restaurant and bar -- meaning FringeArts patrons can make a night of it right on the waterfront.

All of this is a huge financial boon for FringeArts: revenue from the restaurant and bar will join significant new income from venue rentals of everything from the outdoor plaza to a 75-seat studio space.

Before the press conference got underway, FringeArts Marketing Manager Dan Comly called the event "a watershed moment for our organization and the waterfront." According to Comly, the new venue will stand out among the river's existing entertainment options because of the "distinctiveness" of the work FringeArts will present. 

FringeArts President and Producing Director Nick Stuccio joined Gov. Rendell, Mayor Michael Nutter, philanthropist and Delaware River Waterfront Corporation board member Leonard Haas, and Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Director of Commerce Alan Greenberger for a chilly morning ceremony inside the old pumping station.

"This building will be transformative to the organization, placing Philly on the map for contemporary arts," said Haas.
Gov. Rendell noted the Fringe Festival's "crucial" role in making Philadelphia "a beacon for young people," who, during Mayor Nutter's tenure, have gone from shunning city living to aiding the first rise in population Philadelphia has seen in 50 years.  

"One of the main motivators [of this shift] was the Fringe Festival -- it became fun and contemporary, and it added so much life to downtown," said Gov. Rendell. 

Mayor Nutter pointed to the burgeoning collaboration between FringeArts and the adjacent Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. 

"This partnership will mean a great deal when this facility opens in September," he said. "This continues the larger work of the Delaware River Waterfront master plan."

Gov. Rendell explained the partnership further, noting that the Waterfront Corporation is funding the bathroom facilities of the FringeArts building; they will be available to the public during future festivals on the Race Street Pier. 

Catching up with Flying Kite after the ceremony, Stuccio spoke more about the impact of the sprawling new facility. Though he insisted that FringeArts is primarily a mission-based organization that explores and promotes cutting-edge contemporary arts, the festivals do spur an estimated $8 million per year in local economic activity from dollars spent on show tickets, dinners out and hotel rooms. 

"We're proud that we have an economic impact," said Stuccio, also citing the organization's role as an incubator for up-and-coming artists.

He added that part of mounting a successful event year after year is marrying "culture with socialization," and with performance venues, a restaurant and bar, and a 4,000-square-foot outdoor plaza taking over the old street that borders the building's north side, the new facility will exemplify that effort.

"We want to have a really vibrant social space," Stuccio continued, describing large doors that will open to create a fluid indoor-outdoor space. The planned space is a "frontiering" example of the waterfront's future: "It's the next wave of development for the city." 

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.
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