White River Looks For Renaissance In Emerging Arts Scene

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For several years now, White River Junction has been trying to spruce itself up, and bring more economic vitality to the old railroad town.

It became an artsy place with the Center for Cartoon Studies and Northern Stage. That initiative seemed to go slightly off track, though, when a big-name music venue closed last month.

Some say Tupelo Music Hall, which also has a location in Londonderry, New Hampshire, may have been too ambitious at its Vermont site.

It tried to book such big names as David Bromberg and Judy Collins frequently, charging accordingly high prices.

Tupelo built a state-of-the-art stage in a former railroad freight house. Mike Davidson owns the building. He believes those marquee acts were well worth the price of admission, and says some major acts will still be presented.  But now he is partnering with the venue’s management on a different business plan.  

"Tupelo is important enough to save," he says.

"But what we’re going start to do," he adds, "is bring more local acts into the room, and more local arts of different types. We might work with theater groups who need a sound stage. We might work with artists who want to record there. At the same time we would do more fundraisers."

And, he says, weddings and bar mitzvahs. Davidson’s list of possible new uses is long, and he’s investing his own money to rescue Tupelo in hopes that the community will, in his words, "either use it or lose it," as the economy limps into recovery.

 "It’s been a tough couple of years," he admits,  but we’re not just going to fold up the tents and go home."

Tupelo’s re-birth is good news for Skip Symanksi, who owns an upscale restaurant called Elixir tucked into the other end of the former freight house.

Symanksi says weekend business is good with or without Tupelo. But he says weekday concerts do bring extra customers. Still, he says Tupelo is not the only game in town. For example, Northern Stage supplies a hungry theater crowd.

 "And White River itself is growing, you see more businesses moving into the area" Symanksi points out. "Resource Systems Group, Maponics, all have moved into here recently, and they keep growing.  Ibex is up the hill.  A lot of people are finding out that White River is a great place to be and a great place to do business." 

The businesses he names-a management consultant, a mapping company, and a clothing maker-are job creators in a place that badly needs them. And they are just pieces in a larger redevelopment puzzle that White River Junction’s planning and development director, Lori Hirshfield, displays on a colorful map. It shows a renovated bus station and new sidewalks and lighting leading down to the freight house area, which is starting to sprout small businesses in addition to Tupelo.

"The idea is to really have that sense of connection from the main core up here by the Hotel Coolidge moving all the way down to the freight house and redevelopment and Elixir and Tupelo space," Hirshfield says.

Given how much White River was apparently banking on Tupelo to be a jewel in its renaissance crown, its comeback is likely to stir up more than the usual end-of-summer celebration.

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