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Arts effort delivers hope to downtown

July 23, 2013|Bill Kohler

There’s a scene in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where George Bailey runs along the snow-covered Main Street in fictional Bedford Falls shouting, “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!”

People are everywhere. Families walking, couples holding hands. People are shuffling off to church, home or to pick up a last-minute Christmas gift.

I remember years ago asking my father about that scene. “Was it really like that?”

He nodded and explained how Main Street in Waynesboro, Hagerstown, Chambersburg and thousands of other small towns in America once bustled with activity every day except Sunday.

It will never be like that again. I think we all understand that. People like shopping at malls, and they prefer lots of parking, air conditioning and food courts.

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However, we caught a glimpse of what it could be again thanks to Andrew Sussman of Waynesboro and an army of dedicated volunteers who want to make a difference in their community.

The Arts Alliance of Greater Waynesboro pulled off a major success story this weekend that could have ramifications not just for the small borough in Franklin County, but also across the country.

What a concept when you think about it: Fill vacant, un-rented downtown store fronts with art, music, food and people.

Even sweltering temperatures and a monsoon couldn’t keep people away.

In all seriousness, Sussman was thrilled with the opening weekend of Destination ARTS!

“We are determined to make this a lasting success,” Sussman said Tuesday night. “There is such a golden opportunity to do something positive for this community.”

What was golden this weekend: People walking the streets. Friday night in Waynesboro was inspiring.

Even with the threat of a major thunderstorm, there were people everywhere.

I told my 12-year-old daughter that was the way it used to be when her pappy was young, when her daddy was her age. The Camera Shop, JC Penney, Joe the Motorist’s Friend, Western Auto, Long Jewelers,

The Men’s Shop and Douglas’s Pastry Shop were staples of my memories.

Those days are gone, but Sussman and his army of doers are on to something here.

Sussman, the former director of Cumberland Valley School of Music, told The Herald-Mail last week that the ultimate goal is to bring vibrancy back to downtown and in a sense put Destination ARTS! out of business. In other words, the objective is to get the spaces rented and move the galleries to another vacant storefront.

In the meantime, people are getting to see amazing works of art, hear local and regional musicians (if you didn’t catch Waynesboro talents Missy Ecker singing on Sunday near the old Minnich Pharmacy or Rebecca Reed on Friday night, you missed something special), socialize, support existing businesses and create an amazing sense of community.

You know what excites me as a resident of Waynesboro? That Sussman says there will be no “resting on laurels,” as he shared in an email Sunday.

“We are trying to add something new every week. We want people to come back,” he said.

Hitting the ultimate objective won’t be easy. The harsh reality of our struggling economy is frightening.

Running a business is a difficult, labor of love. Downtowns everywhere are stagnant.

And this process required a lot of work, according to organizers.

Waynesboro artist Marjorie Tressler, who curated the nearly 800-piece show with Tom McFarland and Jeanie Woods, said Sunday that when Sussman brought up the idea, she thought it was going to take a village to do this. “It did take a village,” she said.

An example: She made a comment that she would like to have a rug at the front door of the gallery at the former Western Auto location. “Preferably, an Oriental rug,” she said. “A little while later, there was one coming through the door.” 

Here’s my take-away from this project: hope.

The Arts Alliance of Greater Waynesboro has instilled some hope that things will get better downtown, that there will be more successes than failures. Destination ARTS! is going to generate foot traffic for the next nine to 10 weekends, so there’s really no excuse not to go check it out.

Along with that hope is the feeling that other communities can rally for their downtowns, too. Hagerstown, which has a plethora of vacant spaces, especially just beyond the city’s core, could do this. Martinsburg, W.Va., Chambersburg, Pa., Cumberland, Md., could all do this.

But it takes vision and planning.

“This is an all-American thing,” said Susan McGinley of Hagerstown, one of Andrew’s army of helpers/organizers. “One man — Andrew — came up with the idea and he assembled the best team to get the job done. He knows how to get the right people for each part of the process.”

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