2013-03-28 / Front Page
Painting a brighter picture for Monmouth County
Countywide cultural initiative rallies artists, businesses to promote tourism, growth
Dozens of members of the Monmouth County Arts Corridor Partnership (MoCo) — a collaborative effort by artists, arts advocates, business leaders, educators, industry professionals, government officials and more — met March 19 at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, to solidify their multipronged effort to establish Monmouth County as “a cultural destination of choice.”
“It’s been proven through various studies throughout the country that communities [that fully] embrace the arts thrive,” MoCo Director James Hickey said.
“Monmouth County is absolutely rich in artistic resources. It’s not that we have to build them. We just have to organize them, harness them and raise awareness.”
Funded through the Monmouth County Arts Council and focusing on six “hubs” — Red Bank, the Bayshore, Long Branch, Manasquan, Belmar and Asbury Park — the MoCo is working to both foster an artsfriendly climate throughout the county and use its considerable cultural resources to promote economic growth. Much of last week’s meeting was devoted to the establishment of a diverse network of partners — towns, businesses and other community members who could benefit from the talents of the county’s painters, sculptors, musicians, performers and wordsmiths.
Vaune Peck, coordinator of arts programming and promotion at Monmouth University, said such partnerships would help the county attract a broad range of tourists, buoy local economies and increase area tax revenues.
“Say you’re coming to Red Bank from New York on a train and you get dropped off at the train station. You don’t know where to go,” she said. “So maybe your train ticket could include the cab ride to a theater, or you could get a package for the train ticket, the cab ride, the ticket to the show, and a discount to dinner at the restaurant down the street. Everyone involved would benefit.”
Pam Marvin, a member of the Monmouth County Arts Council board of trustees, said the effort is especially vital now, as many area communities struggle with lost revenues in the wake of superstorm Sandy.
“It’s a fine balancing act. We have to focus on rebuilding, but frankly we need the tourism dollars. We don’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t go there because it has been destroyed,’” she said.
“So we need to make sure that people are kind of aware of us and coming back and patronizing some of those businesses that are open.”
In order to facilitate that, MoCo’s partners are working to set up a database of area artists and arts organizations so county businesses and service providers can easily locate one they might need. If, for example, a local bank is in the market for a band to perform at a fundraiser or a ribbon-cutting ceremony, MoCo could put the two in touch, Hickey said.
In Keyport, where Sandy devastated dozens of homes and much of the small borough’s bayfront business community, a focus on arts and cultural revival could make a tremendous difference, according to Trinity restaurant owner Charles Merla.
“There is no negative when you’re talking about art,” said Merla, who also serves on the board of the Keyport Bayfront Business Cooperative and the Art Society of Keyport (ASK).
“It inspires the whole community to react, to come together.”
Never has that been more apparent, he said, than since the storm destroyed Keyport’s large mosaic mural exhibit near the Raritan waterfront.
After receiving more than $17,000 in donations and grants from arts advocacy organizations, ASK is now at work on a replacement that will incorporate local artwork with advertisements for the borough’s businesses.
“Our new design is a knockout. We are going to do a whole art project for traffic coming in from the highway, and it will include a nice marriage of art and the local businesses. Instead of some hideous flashing or neon signs, we’re going to have some truly beautiful work to grab people’s attention.”
In addition, Merla said Keyport could possibly be transformed into a true cultural center for area artists, which in turn could draw even more attention and provide more help for the storm-battered borough.
“There are a ton of houses for sale in Keyport. It could become an artist community very easily,” he said.
Another of MoCo’s initiatives is just that — to create space for area artists to live and work. That’s why, Peck said, the partnership is also forming relationships with builders and housing professionals throughout the county.
“People want to live in an area that is culturally rich,” she said. “So it benefits the real estate industry, it benefits developers. They are talking about creating low-income or low-cost living arrangements in Asbury Park, say, for artists to live in.
“If you put them all in one spot, the payback will be 100 times more than if they were spread out all over the community, because they inspire one another. The sparks that fly from that, I can’t even imagine.”
Representatives from the county Board of Chosen Freeholders, the county Planning Board, the state Office for Planning Advocacy and Creative New Jersey — a similar statewide initiative launched in 2009 — were also on-hand, offering help and submitting ideas for both the short and long term.
One such suggestion, offered by a NJ Transit representative, involved extending train service on the southbound North Jersey Coast Line to Point Pleasant, eliminating the need for riders to transfer en route.
“Nobody down here has really demanded it, so they haven’t done it,” Peck said, referring to the installation of a “dualmode” electric and diesel train engine that would make the extension possible.
“Now, MoCo is going to campaign for these engines to be available for us, so we can get people past Long Branch.”
The group also discussed its campaigning initiatives, including an upcoming appearance before the Bayshore Conference of Mayors on April 19.
The goal, Peck said, is to explain to local officials and chambers of commerce how the arts also lead to lower dropout rates, increased academic achievement and more community involvement among the county’s youth.
Middletown Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger, who attended the meeting in his capacity as director of the state Office of Planning Advocacy, predicted that his and many other storm-impacted towns would be interested in partnering with the initiative.
“This is part of the renaissance that these towns need right now,” he said