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The interior of the Strand Theater
The interior of the Strand Theater

Two downtown spaces bring art to Plattsburgh

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Plattsburgh is a city in transition. There's a lot of effort to attract new families and businesses and rebrand the lakeside city as a destination. As Sarah Harris reports, a key part of that revitalization means bringing the downtown back to life and building the arts scene.

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Tavish Costello at the Rota Gallery

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Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

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Plattsburgh is home to a number of arts groups. Two that struck me, though, are right downtown: The ROTA gallery and the Strand Theater.  They’re really different. ROTA’s a small grassroots community art space. The Strand is an enormous classical revival theater undergoing a 4 million dollar renovation. They operate on completely different scales, but both could be instrumental in creating Plattsburgh’s burgeoning arts scene.

"You need to be creative," says visual artist and ROTA Gallery co-founder Tavish Costello. "You need to create a good time wherever you are. You need to make a place what it is."

Tavish and other young artists around town had been having pop up art parties at people’s houses and hosting alternative bands in people’s basements. But they yearned for a more legitimate venue, a space to play music and display their work. So they decided to make their own, renting an empty storefront on Clinton Street.  

"It was a hurdle to make the decision to actually rent the place out," Costello said. "I started basically with 1000 dollars in the bank. Once we had the place it was all about, ‘okay, who wants to put on a show.’"

ROTA’s not about hanging fine art on the walls. Anybody with enough work to fill the gallery is welcome to have a show. It’s a community space, for all ages, with an event almost every night: bands and poetry readings, and potluck suppers and clothing drives. It’s given a lot of Plattsburgh’s artists and youth a place to go, and a place that’s theirs.

Just a few blocks away, a different revitalization is happening: Plattsburgh’s Strand Theater. The strand was built in 1924. For a long time, it was a movie theater. But by 2004, the building was peeling, the marquis had faded, and and was on the brink of foreclosure.

The North Country Cultural Center for the Arts bought the Strand. They’ve been restoring the theater to its original conditions since. Lee Mundy is the president the arts center board:

"We really envision it to be a lot of things for the community, anywhere from chamber music to jazz, whatever the community wants, comedy, we can have lecture series, graduations, weddings, film festivals, we really have the option to do a lot of things," she said.

I meet Lee, along with Pod Studio owner Joshua Kretser and SUNY Plattsburgh professor Colin Read, in the Strand lobby. It’s absolutely beautiful: there are guilded columns on the wall and ornate moldings on the ceilings. Everything’s been redone in burgundy and sea-foam green, which Mundy says are the lobby’s original colors.  

Inside the theater, though, it’s pretty shabby. The paint is peeling. There’s a huge pile of garbage, and construction tools litter the floor. But the space hasn’t lost its grandeur. Here’s Colin Read:

"This room is like the grandest of theaters that you could imagine, very high vaulted ceilings where you could imagine a huge chandelier that comes up and comes down to announce when the curtain is going to open with a 1000 seats plush seats looking over a stage and with amazing acoustics."

And that’s not the only plan. There’s talk of turning the area around the strand into an arts corridor, which Read says could bolster Plattsburgh’s economy.

"This really creates an awful lot of jobs in the restaurant industry and the arts industry downtown that multiplies throughout our economy to the point where we feel about $4 million of economic activity will be generated per year here," he explained. 

Of course, that hasn’t happened yet. For a long time Plattsburgh has struggled against its image as a blue collar city that lost its identity when the airforce base closed in 1995. And Plattsburgh is perhaps unfairly compared to Burlington, a city across the lake that successfully revitalized its art deco theater and engineered a city-wide arts revival in the 1980s. Last summer, the Burlington alternative weekly paper 7 Days ran a snide account of a Saturday night in Plattsburgh, making it out as a drinking town with no real cultural life.

But arts organizers in the city say that’s not true. There’s a lot on going here, says Lee Mundy, and building the arts has repurcussions for how Plattsburgh sees itself.

"We don’t want to be Burlington, we want to be Plattsburgh. We can be the best Plattsburgh."

When people visit the Strand, Joshua Kretser says, they get excited.

"They see the potential, they see all of the progress that’s been made so far, and it just encourages people to continue feeling that Plattsburgh is a place that’s coming into its own."

Janine Scherline is director of the North Country Cultural Center for the Arts. She says all the community art endeavors around the city reflect that excitement.

"People are ready for Plattsburgh to kind of realize the potential it actually has or had once enjoyed, and kind of bringing that back again."

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