When she stepped out of her diner and took in the sight of 100 flaming torches held aloft across the span of the State Street bridge, the focal point of an utterly silent crowd of tens of thousands of onlookers, and heard the voice of opera singer Angela Grace ring out through the entire city, Laura Ackley began to weep.
“I just sobbed and sobbed.” Ackley, 51, the general manager of Donna’s Diner in downtown Sharon, Pennsylvania, recalled the opening ceremony of the first WaterFire-Sharon on Aug. 3, 2013.
“There were thousands of people… everywhere… and you could have heard a pin drop,” Ackley said. “The voice of this live opera singer pumped throughout the entire city…”
More than a year and six WaterFire-Sharon events later, the experience still takes Ackley’s breath away.
One by one, 50 floating bonfires on the Shenango River, which courses through downtown Sharon, were ignited.
“Until that moment, I thought I knew everything about WaterFire,” said Ackley, whose aunt and cousin are on the WaterFire-Sharon board of directors and hadn’t stopped talking about the upcoming event for nearly a year. Ackley was a WaterFire volunteer herself; she worked on marketing.
“Everyone was completely enraptured by this experience,” she recalled. “No one had ever seen anything like it — experienced anything like it. Because it’s not something you just see. It’s something you experience. And you can’t explain that to somebody. You have to experience it.”
‘We saw all sorts of interesting things in Riverhead’
WaterFire, created by Rhode Island artist Barnaby Evans in Providence, is a spectacular cultural festival — and it is breathtaking: bonfires, gondolas, drummers, singers, artists and artisans demonstrating and selling their wares, theater, opera, performance artists.
And now, Evans is considering bringing the festival to downtown Riverhead.
WaterFire is widely credited with Providence’s turnaround over the past two decades from a depressed “dark smudge on the map on the way to Cape Cod from New York City” to a happening small city that’s a desirable place to live. Evans’ resume boasts a long list of awards and honors for both his art and the impacts of his biggest project on the state’s largest city, home to 178,000 people on the banks of the Providence and Seekonk rivers.The scope of the twice-monthly Providence festival in the city’s bustling “Down City Arts District” is enormous. There are 100 braziers filled with crackling firewood flaming on the rivers, and the performances, music and art stretch out from the river itself to blocks beyond it in every direction.
But what about a small town like Riverhead, where Evans would like to produce a WaterFire festival along the Peconic River?
“Each WaterFire is tailored to the community,” Evans said Sunday in Providence, “because each one is an expression of community.” It’s an expression of community not just in its size and scope, but also in how it incorporates the community’s natural resources and brings together the diverse groups living there, he said.
“In going into a town, we are very careful not to preimagine what we should do, because the best ideas are going to be the ideas that the community co-evolves with us,” Evans said.
Evans said he got interested in Riverhead after he learned that the Riverhead BID was planning to light bonfires on the Peconic River in an event modeled after WaterFire.
He and a few key WaterFire organizers quietly explored Riverhead this summer and attended events here such as JumpstART, hosted by East End Arts on the riverfront in August. They liked what they saw.
“We saw all sorts of interesting things in Riverhead,” Evans said. “You have a centuries-old arts community, a fantastic food-to-table movement, the farms, the vineyards, the historic buildings,” he said.
Riverhead’s most appealing attribute to Evans might well be what it lacks: the feeling of community pride and a positive self-image, the sense of hope that things can and will get better.
It’s in the psyche of a place. When a community has a “downtrodden self-image,” Evans said, “there’s the feeling that we can never get started again, we can never change it.”
“WaterFire is not about just lighting fires,” Evans said. “Anybody can do that. It’s about weaving together this whole sense that we can change it, we will change it, we can celebrate.”
A defining moment in the timeline of a city’s history
The City of Sharon, Pennsylvania, located on the Ohio border 75 miles north of Pittsburgh, lost about half its population over the past two decades, since the collapse of the American steel industry. The city’s two main employers, a steel mill and a Westinghouse plant, both folded. Homes were abandoned. Businesses were shuttered. Its once-thriving downtown, which had been the retail and commercial hub of largely agricultural Mercer County in the Shenango River Valley, became a ghost town. Most surviving retailers moved to strip shopping centers and malls in a nearby town.
“Our downtown has struggled with its identity,” said Sharon city manager Scott Andrejchak. “We’re not going to have retail any more. What are we going to be? We are a blue-collar town and a hard-drinking town to tell you the truth,” Adrejchak said in a phone interview Monday.
The city had eyed the arts as a possible way to revive its flagging downtown business district, Sharon City Council President Edward Palanski said yesterday. And three years ago — before WaterFire, now such a defining moment in the city’s history that everything is placed on a timeline in those terms, “before” and “after” WaterFire — things were just beginning to percolate, Palanski said.
“Before the first WaterFire, there were four or five new businesses downtown,” Palanski said. “But now, in the past year, things have just taken off.”
The city has done things to make its downtown a more inviting place.
“We lit State Street up like an airport runway,” Palanski said, referring to the downtown’s main street. “Go down there at midnight and it’s like daylight and that’s important,” he said. “The cockroaches don’t want to come out in the light.” The businesses that opened — a beader, a potter, a yarn shop, a culinary store — all give evening classes, he said. “We had to make sure visitors felt safe on State Street.”
Since WaterFire, dozens of new businesses have opened downtown, he said. There aren’t many vacancies left. And second-floor apartments are being filled at rents considered astronomical in a place where homes can still be bought for under $100,000.
“Some are going for $2,000 a month,” Palanski said, incredulity in his voice. “Doctors and such are renting them,” he added. A new five-story medical facility is currently being built downtown. It will employ about 150 people.
The city has made improvements to its riverfront park and is planning more, including a bike trail. “A kayak outfit is looking at us. They’d like to set up a kayaking course in the river,” Palanski said.
Sharon has attracted businesses from outside the area, such as a newly opened Haitian coffee shop. A hotel chain that specializes in micro hotels is scouting out the city, Palanski said.
“Some people from Cleveland are looking at sites downtown,” the councilman said.
Sharon’s got a buzz now. People who came for WaterFire are coming back to shop and stay, he said.
‘A catalyst for revitalization’
“It’s been a long, hard ride to get to this place,” Ackley said yesterday. She chairs the downtown revitalization committee of the all-volunteer Sharon Community and Economic Development Commission. “We’re an overnight success after decades of hard work,” she said.
“It’s the perfect storm,” Ackley said.
“The mentality of people has switched. People realize you need community. People are flocking to downtowns now. It’s becoming hip to support local and little downtowns in America are coming back. People realized they were missing out on something important when they spent their time in big box stores and malls,” Ackley said.
“People need a sense of place, a sense of community. WaterFire creates that,” Ackley said.
WaterFire relies on hundreds of volunteers and that’s part of the magic, agrees all who are involved.
“These people have formed a family,” Ackley observed. “They never knew each other before. Now they hang out all year long. They’ve become so close. You can’t walk down the street without seeing people hugging each other.
“There’s this sense of belonging, of community, of pride. That has been as much of a game-changer in our town as economic development,” she said.
“Business owners are painting their stores. You hear people talking about wanting to have this or that done in time for WaterFire,” Ackley said.
“If all of a sudden you’ve got 35,000 people visiting your town — hey, you’re putting on a big party, you’re inviting the world. Let’s get out the good china! It’s contagious.”
WaterFire has created an awareness of downtown Sharon that didn’t exist before, Ackley said, observing, like the city council president, that visitors are returning to shop and stay at other times. In addition to Donna’s Diner, Ackley also runs Buhl Mansion Guesthouse & Spa in Sharon and serves as marketing director for Tara- A Country Inn. All three are family businesses.
“WaterFire has created a synergy that has helped grow the downtown year-round,” she said.
“People who’ve left are coming home because of WaterFire,” Ackley said. “Families around here are making WaterFire weekends into family reunion weekends. Sharon High School had an all-class reunion here this last WaterFire weekend,” she said.
“It’s been a catalyst for the revitalization of Sharon.”
City manager Andrejchak agrees.
“Three years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Andrejchak said. “I went to Providence and I was very skeptical that we could pull this off,” he said.
“It was beautiful — stunning really. The level of volunteerism, the whole experience of it. Nobody here knew it and it was a big learning curve to explain what it is to the public. I think a lot of people didn’t get it at first.”
WaterFire has been “transformative,” Andrejchak said.
“From a local government point of view,” he added, “there’s no down side to it.”
The city has had no problems with hosting the event. Over the course of six productions — three during each of the past two years — city police did not make a single arrest, Andrejchak said.
The city does not waive its ban on open alcohol containers during the festivals, city council president Palanski said.
“Any time you have a big crowd and alcohol you have trouble,” Palanski said.
The event is all about culture and the arts, Ackley said. “Barnaby is insistent that it not become a carnival.” The vendors, for example, are all artists. It’s a family friendly event.
“It’s all about community — a community that wants to engage to transform itself,” Evans said. The community has to be willing to do the difficult negotiations within itself to make it happen, he said.
Evans and WaterFire business consultant Lisa Lowenstein met with business and community leaders in downtown Riverhead on Oct. 15. Next, Lowenstein is meeting with the Riverhead Town Board to discuss WaterFire-Riverhead at tomorrow’s work session. Evans had a prior commitment and cannot attend tomorrow’s meeting, he said.
Riverhead and Sharon have a lot of similarities, Evans said. “Sharon gets into the genuine healing interaction of turning a community around.”
Evans said he spoke to L.I. Aquarium executive director Bryan DeLuca after he’d heard DeLuca suggested “a version of Waterfire” in downtown Riverhead.
“I explained to him that taking one element out of it” — the bonfires — “wont’ work,” Evans said. “I told him we’d take a look at Riverhead and we did,” he said.
“The effort of transforming the riverfront was laudatory and interesting and the site itself has possibilities,” he said. “We liked that people are investing in the two theaters downtown, the hotels, the restaurants… It reminded us a lot of Sharon,” he said.
Tomorrow’s meeting is “a general inquiry,” Evans said.
“We need to do a lot of research with the community,” Evans said. “We don’t want to go to places where people don’t want to do it. We sort of wait for them to build a momentum.”
WaterFire has created a Facebook page for Riverhead called ‘WaterFire Riverhead: Building Renewal Together.’
Evans said they’ve found people in the local community here “very enthusiastic for anything that will help turn Riverhead around” and said he was “very encouraged by their positive response.”
WaterFire Sharon has an annual budget of a half-million dollars. It is funded through grants, private sponsorships and donations. Admission to all events is free and it gets no funding from the city.
“This is not a City of Sharon event,” council president Palanski stressed. “This is WaterFire, which is an independent, non-profit. All donations are tax-deductible,” he said.”the only thing the city does is provide services. The costs have been minimal,” he said.
Top photo caption: Downtown Providence during WaterFire on Saturday, Oct. 25. (Photo: Denise Civiletti)