Moving Beyond The Magic Bullet

Cities frequently fall prey to the seduction of the “magic bullet,” the project that promises to solve a slew of civic ailments in one fell swoop.

From sports stadiums, to convention centers, to flashy new museums, such projects are notorious for failing to live up to their supersized expectations. And more and more evidence suggests that public investments in such projects have a track record of disappointing returns.

There’s something quite different, though, about the National Comedy Center, the big new project now underway in Jamestown spearheaded by the Lucy-Desi Center for Comedy.

More than an altar to the world of comedy, the concept for the center has evolved into an interconnected series of features that have real promise to give a strategic boost to Jamestown’s physical, economic and cultural development.

As currently conceived, the center would develop space in and around Jamestown’s restored train station to house cutting-edge exhibits honoring comedy icons. More importantly, though, it would build on the programming accomplishments of the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival by providing a platform for contemporary talent and a training ground for aspiring comedians.

By making the center about the present and future of comedy, and comedy’s wider role in the arts and humanities, its impact on the city has the potential to extend well beyond the tourism sector. Instead, by helping to position Jamestown as a place of creativity and cultural vibrancy, the project can help the area retain and attract skilled professionals and entrepreneurs who are looking for a place with low overhead costs, high quality of life, a cool urban vibe, and proximity to major metropolitan areas.

While the concept is still being honed, the first stage of physical development will begin this year with a new park behind Jamestown’s train station, including a stairway and track-crossing system to connect the western end of downtown to a rapidly expanding RiverWalk. Spaces within the park will ultimately be incorporated into programming for the National Comedy Center as future phases unfold. Planning for those phases will continue in 2014, building on considerable progress made in 2013 with assistance from industry-leading consultants.

A funding plan for the center is also under development, but the wide base of support necessary to make it work is already being demonstrated. Jamestown’s Gebbie Foundation and Buffalo’s John R. Oishei Foundation are underwriting the planning phase, and many big-name comedians have lent the project credibility by endorsing the concept.

The project makes a solid case for wider support, including state, federal, corporate and philanthropic dollars, through its leveraging of existing investments. By tying the project and its programming to Jamestown’s riverfront and other downtown assets, including the train station, the ice arena and performance venues, the center is set to be integrated with, rather than isolated from, the considerable progress already underway downtown. In doing so, the center will boost the long-term viability of these existing assets and boost its own potential for positive economic spin-offs.

And positive spin-offs are the key to making this work for the community. If the center can bring 120,000 annual visitors to downtown Jamestown, as anticipated, those visitors will be looking for good places to eat and other fun things to do. And if downtown commerce expands to meet that demand, a new range of economic and entertainment opportunities will be available to local residents, as well as to local businesses that can use a vibrant downtown as a selling point in the recruitment of new talent.

Assisting with the expansion of commerce downtown is now a priority of the Jamestown Renaissance Corporation. After supporting a wide range of physical improvements to downtown buildings over the past seven years, efforts to fill empty or underutilized storefronts will get a boost this year with programs that include incentives to help attract established businesses to downtown Jamestown. Having an attractive mix of businesses ready to greet visitors when the National Comedy Center is in full swing will be critical to realizing the project’s full potential.

Even though the center is still in the developmental stages, it shows clear signs of transcending the isolated and short-term impacts that plague many large civic projects. With numerous partners at the table, work already underway to meld the project to wider community goals, and a solid understanding of direct and indirect linkages to further development, this goes well beyond the magic bullet mentality.

Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news from the front lines of Jamestown’s revitalization. Learn more at jamestownrenaissance.org.