Old buildings can be cheap foundation for small town arts

MORRIS, Minn. – Sometimes the perfect use for that old, empty, neglected building on Main Street is as an art gallery or studio space.

During the first day of a two-day conference exploring the intersection of arts and rural economic development at the University of Minnesota Morris, presenters discussed a farm house turned into an artists’ retreat, a school gymnasium that became a performing arts center and an old meat market that will be refurbished to house small shops.

In part, historic buildings are appealing to arts-minded people because they tend to be architecturally interesting and have hard to replicate design details.  They also can be marvelously cheap, selling for as little as $1 in some cases, if the purchasers are willing to fix them up. The reuse of old, iconic rural buildings is a topic Ground Level will be exploring in more detail in the coming weeks.

“Appearance matters,” said Jane Lanphere of the Luverne Area Chamber at a panel called “How the Arts Can Make Life Vibrant in Rural Communities,” part of the Rural Arts and Culture Summit. Old buildings are unique, she said. They differentiate one small town from another. She told how Luverne, in southwestern Minnesota, engaged in a round of soul searching a few years ago “to figure out what we needed to do to revitalize ourselves.” More than 100 residents participated in a six-month-long “visioning” process.

“There was a strong indication that arts are an important factor in community aesthetics,” Lanphere said. She said an old hotel was refurbished to be a private residence, and a group of investors is working to fix up an elegant former meat market. “Like any old downtown, we had great bones but some bad things had happened over the years.”

A similar transformation took place in the old high school gymnasium in Dawson, in western Minnesota, now a performing arts center.  Luanne Fondell of the Dawson-Boyd Arts Association said that when the high school decided it needed a bigger facility for sports more than a decade ago, one of the town’s principals launched a “what if” committee to focus on possible reuses. After a lot of discussion, the community passed (on the second try) a referendum to turn the gym into an arts center. Now, it hosts ballet and string and brass concerts.

“We have a sports bar in town,” Fondell said. “The week before a show, if I am in there for a meal, there is a waitress who asks, ‘how are ticket sales going?’” That’s because if it’s a big show, the sports bar will be busy and she wants to make sure she has enough staff on hand. “I’m happy those connections are being made, that we can benefit our community.”

“Our story is that small is an advantage sometimes,” she said. “I think you can get more things done when you are small and you know everybody at the table and are connected in a way maybe you’re not in larger communities.”