Forum seeks ways to make Gate City a cultural mecca

NASHUA – All the good things that make the city livable don’t necessarily make it sellable as a cultural hub or arts destination.

During a cultural planning forum last week at Nashua Community College, many of the 50 or so attendees listed a litany of attributes that distinguish Nashua from Manchester to the north and Lowell, Mass., to the south.

Discussion kept returning to Nashua’s “small-town feel” and its recognition by national magazines as the best place to live in America and one of the 50 best places to raise children.

That’s when Ron Kraus felt compelled to speak up.

“From a business perspective, ‘comfortable, cozy and modern’ doesn’t translate to dollars and cents,” said Kraus, who owns a dental-supply business.

“What translates to dollars and cents are the Verizon Wireless Arena and a successful baseball team.”

By the simple act of naming two things Manchester has and Nashua lacks, Kraus defined the challenge that had toppled past efforts to create a climate for the arts here: finding a way to involve the business community and build a financial base to turn vision into reality.

The forum was organized by Mayor Donnalee Lozeau and moderated by Margie Butler, former director of a cultural economic development project in New Bedford, Mass., and a senior consultant for a creative marketing strategy firm in New York.

Liz Racioppi, past president of an arts group and a business owner, also assisted in moderating the forum.

The intent was to gather input from invited guests representing a mix of arts organizations, artists, and business and community leaders. The forum was a prelude to the mayor naming a steering committee, which after two months of work will help create a city cultural commission.

Attending the forum were representatives from theater, dance and music groups, artists and galleries, teachers and schools, the N.H. State Council on the Arts and other agencies, the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce and Great American Downtown officials, the superintendent of schools, community development and economic development directors, and other city officials.

The recession shouldn’t deter the city’s efforts, Butler said.”As far as economic impact, it’s a particularly relevant time to talk about arts and culture,” she said.

As wallets tighten, people might find the local arts scene an affordable alternative to other forms of entertainment, Butler said.

Plus, studies have shown that audience members who attend events or performances tend to spend money at restaurants and stores while they’re in town, she said.

“I think there is even more opportunity now,” Butler said.

In 2005, the city’s then-economic development director put together a series of three workshops on the arts. Those workshops engendered the successful Arts Walks and an organization called City Arts Nashua, or CAN, which brought arts groups together to help promote various shows and arts happenings in the city.

Lozeau said Thursday that CAN remains an important part of the arts scene. But a city cultural commission would have more clout, she said. It also would be able to set priorities for disbursing grants and city funding to arts organizations, she said.

The forum centered on such familiar themes as marketing performances and special events and improving arts facilities. Lozeau steered discussion away from creating a new arts center – huge, sometimes gargantuan costs killed past proposals for a center.

Instead, Lozeau said the focus should be on how to make the most of existing facilities.

Discussion also touched on creating a brand name or slogan that would identify Nashua as a cultural hotspot.

“If you don’t have the message, you have nothing to market,” said Mark Cookson, a Ward 1 alderman who coordinated one of a handful of small group discussions.

Those groups explored optimizing existing facilities, merging facilities with educational opportunities, encouraging public art, creating and marketing a brand for Nashua’s culture, creating a citywide special event that could serve as a centerpiece for promoting the arts and establishing an urban arts colony for resident artists.

Ultimately, the city cultural commission could assist in boosting the downtown’s economic vitality, as well as setting its sight on “the holy grail” of making Nashua a cultural destination, Butler said.