In New Compact, Harwich Harnesses 'The Power Of Culture'

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Arts , Economic development

In February, the town and the Harwich Cultural Council signed a formal agreement with the Harwich Chamber of Commerce and the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC).   FILE PHOTO

HARWICH When it comes to supporting local theater, providing studio space for artists, and giving local musicians public performance venues, Harwich deserves to take a bow. But by all accounts, the show’s just getting started.

On Monday, the town and the Harwich Cultural Council signed a formal agreement with the Harwich Chamber of Commerce and the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC). In so doing, it becomes the first town in the commonwealth to join the new cultural compact pilot program.

“This is a very, very exciting day for Harwich,” MCC Executive Director Anita Walker told selectmen Monday night. “We believe in the power of culture.”

The compact is designed to increase collaboration and creative initiatives that support cultural and economic development in town, Walker said. The MCC chose six communities to take part in the pilot project, and the other five are cities, she said. Asked why Harwich was chosen to take part, Walker credited the town’s many arts-related programs, the artist shanties included in the Saquatucket Harbor reconstruction, and the creation of a cultural center in the former Harwich Middle School.

“Harwich already recognizes the value of arts and culture in the community,” Walker said. “You have some really exciting ambitions about how to make it even better around here.”

The adaptive reuse of the school is particularly impressive, she noted. “I had a chance to tour it the last time I was here,” Walker said, and now the facility’s classrooms and other spaces are filled to capacity with artists and craftspeople. The Harwich Cultural Center can be a model for other communities in Massachusetts, she added.

“Just because of you,” she said, MCC is convening a meeting of all communities in the state that have converted unused town buildings to cultural centers “to see if we can learn from each other.” Of key interest is how the town can monetize additional spaces in the building, like the cafeteria and the auditorium, both to provide more revenue to operate the center and to encourage more frequent use.

“That’s one of the other projects we’ll be working on,” Walker said.

“Once again, Harwich is in the forefront,” Chamber Executive Director Cyndi Williams said. The partners will be hosting a kick-off celebration for the compact on May 24 at the cultural center, featuring live music and arts and crafts demonstrations.

Williams thanked State Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, and State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, for supporting the compact.

A key focus of the compact will be the creation of two cultural districts in the town.

“That’s on the top of our list,” Walker said. Forty-three cities and towns in the state have already created cultural districts, which help local arts, humanities, and science organizations improve the quality and range of their public programs. Created by legislation passed in 2010, the districts are designed to enhance the experience for visitors, attracting more tourist dollars and tax revenue. Proponents say cultural districts also boost property values throughout the area.

“We’re going for two cultural districts,” in Harwich Port and Harwich Center, Williams said.

On the Cape, other cultural districts have been established in downtown Orleans, Barnstable village, Provincetown, Sandwich and Wellfleet. The district near Hyannis Harbor is home to a large group of seasonal artist shacks that do more than contribute to the harbor’s quaint appearance, Walker said.

“Last year, those shanties...brought in a million dollars in income,” she said.

Tina Games, chairman of the Harwich Cultural Council, praised the partnership and its members, who have been designing the compact for some time.

“We worked very hard to pull this together,” Games said. “This is an exciting moment for the Harwich Cultural Council.”

At Monday’s meeting of the board of selectmen, a short ceremony was held to sign the compact. The signatories were Games, Williams, Walker and Town Planner Charleen Greenhalgh.