Bardavon Takes a Lead Role in Reviving Region

Written by John Barry, Poughkeepsie Journal

A historic concert hall in downtown Poughkeepsie is building on a regional approach to presenting the arts by assuming pivotal roles in redevelopment projects in Newburgh and Kingston.

Chris Silva, executive director of the Bardavon 1869 Opera House on Market Street, is hoping to apply what he learned in Poughkeepsie to downtown revitalization projects involving the Ritz theater in Newburgh and the Broadway Theater at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston.

The Bardavon’s efforts in Newburgh and Kingston expand the already wide reach of the arts organization, which stretches from western Massachusetts to Sullivan County. The work the opera house has undertaken:

• Illustrates how the arts can affect a community beyond offering entertainment.

• Underscores the regional dynamic that binds Hudson Valley cities together.

• Could attract even more artists to a region whose rich arts history is a cornerstone of its legacy.

Silva argues that the Bardavon, a former vaudeville house that has hosted Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, was and remains an engine for revitalization.

“I came to the Bardavon in 1994 and much has changed and improved in Poughkeepsie since then,” he said. “Back then, Poughkeepsie had a very bad reputation, where prostitution and drug sales surrounded the Bardavon. After 4 p.m., the Main Mall was a scary, empty ghost town. The waterfront was totally undeveloped. But the dramatic increase in activity at the Bardavon over the last 16 years parallels the transformations that have occurred in Poughkeepsie.”

Silva said these transformations include:

• The opening of the Main Mall to traffic.

• The Bonura family taking over and renovating the Poughkeepsie Grand Hotel and developing the waterfront.

• The arrival of The Artist’s Palate and other restaurants downtown.

• The development of the Luckey Platt building.

• Metro-North Railroad’s parking lot expansion.

• The development of Dooley Square.

• The opening of the Walkway Over the Hudson.

“Crime was skyrocketing,” Poughkeepsie Mayor John Tkazyik said of 1994. “The Bardavon has definitely enhanced the overall redevelopment efforts of the downtown of the City of Poughkeepsie.”

In Newburgh, the Bardavon is working with Safe Harbors of the Hudson, which operates housing for formerly homeless adults, adults with mental health issues, veterans, victims of domestic violence and artists. Safe Harbors has also embarked on a $12 million renovation project involving an 800-seat theater — the Ritz — where Lucille Ball made her stage debut.

Two exits north on the New York State Thruway, the King’s Inn Review Committee, a panel of officials and business owners, is trying to figure out what to do with the King’s Inn, a former residence for the homeless on Broadway in midtown Kingston. Silva is a member of this committee.

The 40-room King’s Inn has been vacant since 2007, when Kingston’s Building Safety Division shut it down because of numerous code violations. The building’s owner owes $130,000 in taxes and penalties and the City of Kingston officially took possession of the site in June.

“Part of all this is that people who run arts organizations are not risk-averse,” said Benjamin Krevolin, chairman of the Dutchess County Arts Council. “I think they are adventurous, they are determined and they can see things where other people don’t.”

Jonathan Drapkin, president and CEO of Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, said the Bardavon’s efforts outside of Poughkeepsie could serve as a model for other regional organizations, such as those that provide affordable housing.

Newburgh-based Pattern for Progress, Drapkin said, “promotes regional, balanced and sustainable solutions that enhance the growth and vitality of the Hudson Valley.

“By creating an infrastructure that transcends working in one county or one city, each city doesn’t have to come up with a strategy on its own,” Drapkin said. “If it’s working in one place, it can work in another.”

And, he added, the Hudson Valley’s major cities — Poughkeepsie, Beacon, Newburgh and Kingston — “they’re not so unique, not incredibly different.”

The Bardavon, since Silva’s arrival 16 years ago, has enjoyed growth that includes an increase from 50,000 patrons annually to 120,000; an annual budget of $800,000 that has increased to $3.7 million; and a staff of eight full-time employees that has grown to 20.

In 2006, the Bardavon took over the Broadway Theater at the Ulster Performing Arts Center, which is just two doors down from King’s Inn.

Also in 2006, Silva and Stephen LaMarca, the Bardavon’s managing director of theater production, became consultants with the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington, Mass. In 1999, the Bardavon took over the bankrupt Hudson Valley Philharmonic; from 2004 to 2006, the Bardavon served as a consultant to the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Sullivan County, on the site of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

Silva has been a consultant to the New York State Council on the Arts since 1995. Across the Hudson River, in Ulster County, he is an ad hoc adviser with the Rosendale Theatre.

Overcoming Challenges

The situations in Newburgh and Kingston are dramatically different than what Silva found in Great Barrington. And they present all kinds of challenges that don’t exist in the cozy, Berkshire Mountain community in western Massachusetts.

While King’s Inn was being used to house the homeless, the City of Kingston Police Department received numerous reports of prostitution and drug use.

“The development of both the Ritz theater and the King’s Inn could have a profoundly positive effect on two distressed parts of each city,” Silva said. “The irony is that in Kingston, UPAC is in full operation, which will only be helped by the progressive development of the King’s Inn and vice versa. In Newburgh, Safe Harbors is up and running with 128 tenants, an art gallery, artist work spaces, and the Ritz will benefit from that development, and vice versa.”

Silva has been working in Newburgh with Tricia Haggerty Wenz, executive director of Safe Harbors and the Ritz theater, booking acts for Ritz fundraisers. The residence operated by Safe Harbors is called The Cornerstone.

The money raised at the fundraisers held in the Ritz lobby — performances have featured folk singer Pete Seeger and jazz guitarist Larry Coryell; Laurence Juber, guitarist for Paul McCartney & Wings, will perform in April — is being used to pay for renovations to the theater. A renovated theater in downtown Newburgh, Wenz said, can drive the revitalization of that Hudson River city.

Wenz initially called Silva at the suggestion of a staff member of Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley. She had worked with Hinchey’s staff while applying for a grant.

“It took me a little while to work up the courage to call him,” Wenz said of Silva. “I called him and told him we have a theater we’re looking to restore. He said, pretty abruptly, ‘Why would I want to do this?’ I told him, ‘It’s not just another theater, it’s a really cool project.’ ”

Opening the Ritz — she is spearheading a $6 million fundraising effort and hopes to secure another $6 million in tax credits — will provide job opportunities for the residents of The Cornerstone, Wenz said. And staging performances in downtown Newburgh could stimulate the local economy by attracting new businesses that are drawn by the crowds that attend performances.

Silva points to Newburgh as an example of success in progress, where the arts are used as a driving force to stabilize and stimulate a community.

Safe Harbors opened The Cornerstone in 2006, after a $21 million renovation and:

• The Ritz’s third year of fundraising concerts is under way.

• The Ritz has already raised $1.6 million for renovations.

• Architects have been hired to draw up renovation plans.

• The Newburgh campus of Orange County Community College, set to open in about a year, will use the Ritz as a theater facility.

“I think there is a formula that can work in cities and I think you can’t have a vibrant city with the absence of culture,” Wenz said. “What brings people to cities is the culture. It’s a formula that works.”

In another example of how a regional approach to finding solutions could work, Wenz said she is considering getting involved in the redevelopment of the King’s Inn property.

“Safe Harbors is a good model,” Silva said, “for what could happen at the King’s Inn.”

Suggestions for redevelopment of King’s Inn, proposed at a July meeting, included residential and commercial properties, a pedestrian mall, public garden, outdoor amphitheater and low-income supportive housing for veterans and artists.

Silva would like to see a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, some of which could target artists; possibly a cinema that shows independent films, in the vein of Upstate Films in Rhinebeck and Woodstock; and an anchor commercial tenant, such as a restaurant .

The King’s Inn Review Committee put out a call to developers to submit ideas for the property, but received none by the Nov. 17 deadline. Silva said the focus now turns to demolishing King’s Inn, and, perhaps, waiting until the economy improves.

“We see them very much as stakeholders,” said Patrice Courtney Strong, of Silva and UPAC. Strong is a member of the committee and president of the Business Alliance of Kingston.

“UPAC is the jewel of midtown. It’s one of the key institutions here in this two- to three-block area,” she said. “Their health is very much related to the street’s health.”

In addition to Silva serving on the King’s Inn Review Committee, Strong said, UPAC helps attract artists to Kingston.

Artists, in many cases, she said, help stabilize a community. Research the business alliance has conducted shows that they are often homeowners and business owners, and they typically spend their money at local businesses, she said.

An institution such as UPAC serves as something of a beacon to artists, telling them that the City of Kingston holds the arts in high regard, Strong said.

“We absolutely think they are an economic driver,” she said, “to the extent that UPAC is part of the reassurance that artists get when they come here, that there is a cultural life.”

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