ArtsAltoona outlines Kress plans

Mirror photo by Bill Kibler ArtsAltoona, a recently formed nonprofit, plans to turn the Kress building on 11th Avenue into a multi-faceted arts complex.

A few hours after a news conference Tuesday that outlined plans for a multi-faceted arts complex downtown, one of the participants recited an axiom: “By the inch, it’s a cinch; by the yard, it’s hard.”

The official was Ken Decker, building chairman for ArtsAltoona, the recently formed nonprofit that wants to turn the former Kress building on 11th Avenue into a warren of rental art studios, along with a common art gallery for display of the art produced in the studios, a store for the sale of those artistic works and — with the addition of fourth story on the building — a farm-to-table restaurant and rooftop beer garden.

It’s a measure of the organization’s ambition that Decker’s “by the inch” refers to the multi-million-dollar Kress project — the organization’s current focus, but hardly a miniature undertaking.

Still to come, but only in the sketching stage for now, are other components of the yards-long grand vision for ArtsAltoona, including transformation of the vacant former First United Methodist Church near the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament into an arts education center and, with help from the city, formation of a downtown “creative district” with a director who would function like a main street manager, according to Decker.

Already accomplished is the creation last spring of an online calendar for arts-related events.

Work on the Kress building, obtained as a tax-deductible donation in December from owner Todd Eichelberger, will begin this week with the arrival of an antiques dealer who will examine the contents for salvageable material, Decker said.

After the salvage operation, a demolition company will gut the building, which is chock full of partitions for sleeping rooms, offices and other spaces.

Meanwhile, a 24-member architectural design class from Penn State will take the ideas expressed by ArtsAltoona to create renderings that could help narrow the organization’s choices for ultimate design of the building’s interior by a professional, according to Tom Shaffer, coordinator for academic internships and community-based studies at Penn State Altoona.

It’s not certain when the rebuild would take place.

The money for the project — if it costs $100 per square foot, it would cost $3 million — could come from grants, including money from foundations, local match contributions and “development” — that is, fundraising, Decker said.

The building, on the 1400 block, across from Railroad City Brewing Co., was built in the 1920s and functioned as a five-and-ten into the 1960s, after which it hosted JK Sports, and later, a variety of organizations simultaneously — including, before its shutdown by the city codes office in 2014, a small grocery store, a political campaign headquarters, a photo studio, a dance academy, a financial services office, a construction company headquarters, a law office, and an office for a firm that supplies temporary workers.

The masonry and steel structure is in good shape, although there is some asbestos that needs to be removed and some minor water damage, Decker said.

ArtsAltoona is modeling its overall effort, first outlined publicly last summer, on economic renaissance initiatives in other cities in the region, including Harrisburg, Reading, York and Alexandria, Virginia.

Reading’s downtown would hardly have suffered from a bomb detonation in the 1990s, but it’s now thriving, with 150 art studios, a new hotel, a five-star restaurant and plans for market-rate apartments, said George Sackandy, one of the leaders of the organization.

Harrisburg’s Millworks regularly enhances her visits to the state capital, said ArtsAltoona President Donna Gority.

To help with the details, ArtsAltoona will consult with arts leaders in other communities, Sackandy said.

One detail that’s already in the plans is a 21-member arts-business innovation council, modeled after a Philadelphia program, that will include equal representation for artists, business people and educators, Sackandy said.

It’s a think tank and will help ensure that the interests of all sectors are respected, according to Sackandy.

That could help Altoona become a “national destination for the arts,” he said.

Thriving arts communities are a critical part of the “modern economic development approach,” because they attract people who then become “rooted” in a community, said Steve McKnight, CEO of Altoona Blair County Development Corp.

Ideally, initiatives like ArtsAltoona eventually take on a life of their own, he said.

ArtsAltoona doesn’t want to alienate any of the many existing arts organizations in the area, according to Sackandy.

ArtsAltoona doesn’t plan to help itself to pieces “of the pie,” leaving less for others, but rather to expand the pie by building resources, Sackandy said.

That work will include fundraising that some of the other organizations, with their small staffs, find difficult, he said.

The work will also include creation of a five-year sustainability plan, developed in cooperation with those other organizations, Sackandy said.

Allegheny Ballet Co. Executive Artistic Director Jamale Graves doesn’t think practicing artists will regard the idea of working with ArtsAltoona — a business- and economic-development-oriented group — as a threat to their individual artistic integrity.

Most artists — a few eccentric ones excepted — appreciate patronage that enables them to produce more and to get their works seen or heard or read by a wider audience, said Graves, who hosted the news conference in the ballet studio, which provided a view of the Kress building across the avenue for about 30 people, many of whom are influential people in the community.

One of those was Charles Prijatelj, superintendent of the Altoona Area School District.

“(ArtsAltoona) is a great opportunity to develop the community’s culture,” he said. “Not only for our children, but for their parents and grandparents,” he said.

ArtsAltoona has laid out a daunting vision, Decker conceded.

It just needs to trust it can be realized, he said.

The trust seems to be justified, given the interest the vision has generated, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.