July 2006 Issue
Nelsonville's Public Square is evidence of the town's artistic revival and the contributions of Hocking College students and instructors.
â€œExperience Nelsonvilleâ€¦â€ The billboards along U.S. Rte. 33 encourage passersby to venture off the highway and into the heart of the community where shops, galleries and eateries are located. One block separates highway traffic from the historic Public Square and its quaint, century-old charm.
Since 2003, artists have been quietly moving into vacant storefronts, and a bustling arts community has given a new life to buildings where oiled floors and tin ceilings and walls are commonplace. Those whose skillful hands create pottery, art glass, quilts, jewelry, and fiber art can be found along the Square and up and down Washington and Columbus streets. What isnâ€™t made by local artists is carefully chosen by the individual gallery owners and shopkeepers, who make selections with the eye of a thoughtful jurist choosing art for a quality show.
â€œItâ€™s been an amazing transformation,â€ says Hocking College President John Light. â€œOne by one, the artists arrived, and weâ€™re seeing a renewed interest in the community, particularly in the downtown area theyâ€™ve defined as the Historic Downtown Arts District.â€
Some see the evolution as an overnight success, but for those behind the scenes itâ€™s been a long process involving not only visual arts, but performing arts as well.
Rick Oremus, chairman of the Stuartâ€™s Opera House board of directors, recalls the decades of commitment and the passion shared by a few loyal believers before they were finally able to reopen the doors at Stuartâ€™s Opera House, a wonderfully restored second-floor theater on Nelsonvilleâ€™s Public Square.
According to Oremus, â€œWe were about a week away from an opening show in March of 1980 when an electrical fire nearly destroyed the dream. The Opera House originally opened in 1879 but closed its doors in 1924. For nearly 50 years, everything was intact â€” posters on the walls, original seats and an echo dome. It was all there waiting to be rediscovered. The aftermath of the fire was a ceiling left open to the sky and dreams washed away by the water that doused the fire.â€
Instead of giving in and allowing the Public Square to take on the snaggle-toothed image that results when buildings are torn down, Oremus and others, specifically the Baird Brothers Company Foundation, made a commitment to restoring this standard bearer of the Public Square. Today, Stuartâ€™s Opera House is southeast Ohioâ€™s premier showcase for the performing arts. Among those who have graced the stage of the 500-seat theater during the past three years are Ralph Stanley, in an appearance less than a week after winning a Grammy for his work on the soundtrack of â€œOh Brother, Where Art Thouâ€; mandolin master Sam Bush, who was joined on stage by former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen; the Del McCoury Band; Leo Kottke; Tom Paxton; and Gillian Welch. All left singing the praises of this charming performance venue.
Not all on-stage performers are professionals. Two theater groups, Berean Community Players and Athenian Players Theater, are comprised of seasoned amateurs whose passion is showcased in comedies, dramas and musical performances.
Students in two of Hocking Collegeâ€™s most popular programs â€” International Theater Arts & Management, and Music: Production, Performance and Business Management â€” spend a fair amount of time at Stuartâ€™s Opera House where studio classes and performances are regularly scheduled activities.
Myriah Short, dean of Hocking Collegeâ€™s New College (a division that includes the theater and music programs), sees the historic theater as a major advantage to her students. â€œNot only do we schedule quarterly performances at Stuartâ€™s, but this is a professional venue where our students learn working alongside theater professionals. Experience is always the best teacher and weâ€™ll give them as much experience as possible that relates to their chosen field of study. Only then will they have a real feel for the degree of commitment it takes to rise to the top or to define for themselves what they are striving to reach.â€
Theater students are given a broad range of experiences that enables them to make a decision on which track â€” performance, management or technical production â€” to follow. â€œCourses are modularized, allowing a better subject mix and allowing students to take part in an international immersion component that allows them to go to London, England, for a quarter,â€ Short explains.
Adjunct Professor Victor Pisano, an internationally known producer and screenwriter, works with theater and music students to help them strategize for careers in the entertainment business. He is also a career coach on an individual basis for some students and teaches â€œcreative rights,â€ or intellectual property law, dealing with ideas or work that should be copyrighted.
Pisanoâ€™s approach to teaching and working with students is simple: â€œI lecture and dedicate time in trying to inspire students, especially creative students, to dare to make a living under the parameters set by their own design. My mission is to increase the ranks of the inspired.â€
The music program brought the largest number of first-time new students to Hocking College last fall. Like the theater program, students are offered courses leading to performance, business or production careers.
Short says a partnership with Havering College in London affords music students the opportunity to be a part of the schoolâ€™s renowned pop music production and performance studies. â€œWhat a tremendous advantage this can be,â€ she adds.
â€œFor high school students who would like to sample any of the arts programs at Hocking we offer a spring program called â€˜Partners in Art,â€™â€ she continues. â€œThe two-day workshop enables them to step into the shoes of working artists as they produce a piece of art, experience the music production studio or perform on stage at Stuartâ€™s Opera House.â€
The arts are indeed flourishing in Nelsonville and along Public Square.
Rocky Renovates, Reuses Historic Building
A former manufacturing site has become a mecca for outdoor-gear shoppers.
Nearly every small town has an empty building that can be traced to the early days of manufacturing, but few of these structures have evolved like Rocky Brandsâ€™ former factory in Nelsonville.
Until about a year ago, the three-story building where leather was cut and stitched to make shoes for more than 70 years wore a colorful shoe-making mural as a tribute to its manufacturing roots. When foreign competition drove prices down and the board of directors of this publicly owned company moved manufacturing overseas, CEO Mike Brooks refused to allow the factory to remain idle.
According to Brooks, the old building was renovated at a cost of about $1 million. â€œWhat was previously the Rocky Outlet became Rocky Outdoor Gear Store when we moved across Myers Street. Product lines increased as we created the largest retail outlet in the region,â€ Brooks says.
From first-quality Rocky logo wear to what must appear to customers as an endless array of boots and shoes, the selection of merchandise makes it impossible to leave empty-handed. But outdoor apparel is only the beginning.
The Rocky Outdoor Gear Store also has shoppersâ€™ comfort in mind. The Boot Grill offers a daily special, and visitors will discover it is a favorite gathering place for locals. Just beyond the Boot Grill is the Tourism Center where Paula Tucker and staff are available to share information about what Nelsonville and the region have to offer.
Rocky Brandsâ€™ corporate offices are also located in Nelsonville. The companyâ€™s strategy of expanding the Rocky line to add to its non-footwear offerings has brought even more economic opportunity to the community.
In 2003, Rocky acquired 100-year-old Gates Gloves and in early 2005 brought EJ Footwear Group, whose brands include Georgia Boot, Lehigh, Durango and licensed brand Dickies, into the fold.
Expansion brings the need for additional space, and Rocky purchased the former Nelsonville City Building, directly across U.S. Rte. 33. â€œWeâ€™re renovating that site for more corporate offices,â€ Brooks says. â€œTimes change and Rockyâ€™s presence in Nelsonville is stronger than ever. Jobs are different but weâ€™re still here and weâ€™re part of the effort to make Nelsonville a destination.â€