By Douglas Karlson

­The conversion of an abandoned school building in Harwich into a cultural center has attracted the interest of local artists as well as state officials who see it as possible test case for arts-based economic growth that other towns can follow.

Th­e building, built in 1937, served until recently as the Harwich Middle School. When the towns of Harwich and Chatham formed the Monomoy Regional School District, the middle school relocated to Chatham, leaving the town of Harwich with an empty building.

Th­e question became: what to do with it?

Following lengthy debate, in May 2016 a non-binding ballot question was posed to Harwich voters: should the school be used for a cultural center, town hall, or affordable housing – or should it be torn down? Voters chose affordable housing by a very slight margin, with the idea that the building could be sold to an outside developer who would convert it into affordable apartments and senior residences.

Based on follow-up conversations with the community and a vote against selling the building for housing at Town Meeting last year, the Harwich Board of Selectmen rejected that idea and approved the cultural center on a two-year trial basis. Th­ere are plans to seek Town Meeting approval to extend that term to five or 10 years, which will allow the cultural center to apply for more grants.

Th­e Harwich Cultural Center opened last June, and there is now a waiting list for studio space. A total of 28 classrooms have been rented to 48 artists who pay $300 per month. Other spaces, including a large basement and music room, are also rented at varying rates. Artists include painters, ceramicists, a stained-glass artist, and a printer who uses an extremely large and heavy letterpress printer.

Th­e Harwich Cape Verdean Museum has moved into the school’s old office suite and plans to create an exhibit, the music room will be used by the Cape Cod ­Theatre Company, and the auditorium is frequently rented out for live performances. In addition, the gymnasium is used for a variety of youth and adult recreational activities. Th­ere are also plans to use the old cafeteria for a culinary arts program. Other public spaces will be used for art classes, workshops, and events.

Carolyn Carey, director of the Harwich Community Center, is responsible for leasing space at the cultural center, as well as for promoting the center and booking it as a venue for events. Currently, she reports, rental income from the studios and other spaces totals $11,250 per month, or $149,180 per year. ­That number, says Carey, is “pretty close” to covering the cost to operate and maintain the building. She anticipates that revenue will increase as the center expands its activities.

Cultural Compact

Anita Walker, executive director of the Mass Cultural Council, toured the Harwich Cultural Center shortly after it opened, and says it’s one reason why the town of Harwich was recently selected to participate in a six-month pilot project referred to as the Cultural Compact.

Harwich is one of six communities (and the only town – the other five are larger cities) to sign the Cultural Compact entering into the pilot project. ­e other communities are Pittsfield, Lynn, Worcester, New Bedford, and Springfield.

The Mass Cultural Council, whose mission is to support the arts, sciences, and humanities, and improve the quality of life in the commonwealth, primarily through grants, services, and advocacy, plans to use Harwich and the other five communities as “learning partners,” explained Walker.

In a nutshell, the compact allows the state to study Harwich as a test case, and it allows Harwich access to the state’s resources and expertise.

“­The Mass Cultural Council has a lot of contacts,” explained Tina Games, chairman of the Harwich Cultural Council, “so they’re providing both grant opportunities and a bank of resources.”

Some of the grants they are exploring, she said, will allow the town to upgrade the cultural center, and perhaps renovate the courtyard to allow for outdoor summer concerts.

“Th­ey want to prove that cultural activity and economic growth go hand-in-hand,” said Games. She added that state officials told her they are keen to better understand how small towns operate, and how cultural activity takes place.

Once the pilot project is completed, Games said she expects the Mass Cultural Council will release a report outlining a cultural best practices model that can be replicated in other communities.

“Th­e basic idea is to institutionalize a relationship between the town, the town leadership, our local cultural councils, our chambers, our town planners, and Mass. Cultural Council,” said Walker at a signing ceremony at Harwich Town Hall on February 26.

Games also described the compact as a platform or framework from which to develop plans to move the cultural center and other cultural activities in town forward, and to generate economic growth. Toward that end, later this spring, the Harwich Cultural Council will host a roundtable discussion with the town’s arts leaders to develop new ideas. ­The Mass Cultural Council plans to convene a meeting with other towns with similar facilities to exchange ideas and explore opportunities to generate additional revenue.

One of those ideas is to build artist shanties in Saquatucket Harbor. Walker noted that the artists shanties in Hyannis generated $1 million in art sales last year.

Harwich officials also plan to take the opportunity afforded by the compact to work with counterparts in the state government to create two state-designated cultural districts. Such districts are eligible for support by the commonwealth, and serve as tourist destinations that strengthen the local economy.

Cyndi Williams, executive director of the Harwich Chamber of Commerce, said the town is in the process of applying to establish two such districts, one in Harwich Center and one in Harwich Port.

Th­e new cultural center was one of the main reasons the state chose Harwich for the pilot project, said Williams. “Th­ey loved the idea that we took a school and converted it into a cultural center, and it’s already doing so well.”

Williams thinks the focus on art and culture will stimulate the Harwich economy. She notes that artists will use the center to make art that can be sold in local galleries. ­That will attract more visitors who will in turn bring business to local restaurants and shops. “It’s going to add another dimension to the market that we already have,” she said.