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Tamaqua arts initiative draws interest from SC

Rural communities throughout the country have been looking at innovative ways to ensure their survival, with many looking to the arts and culture as ways to make their communities thrive.

Tamaqua began looking to the arts as a means of spurring economic development as far back as 1994, when the Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership was created.

But it wasn’t until the establishment of the Tamaqua Community Arts Center in 2012 that the initiative really began to take shape. Since then, Tamaqua has become a beacon of hope for other struggling communities.

One such community is Allendale, South Carolina, which teamed up with counterparts in their state capitol, Columbia.

Concerned members of that community became involved with “The Art of Community: Rural SC,” an initiative established by the South Carolina Arts Commission in 2016.

The pilot program was designed to “advance the commission’s commitment to rural development through the arts, culture and creative place-making.”

Through the efforts of Rural LISC, the southern state’s commission learned of the efforts underway in Tamaqua. The only sensible thing to do was to send a contingent of members to Pennsylvania’s coal country to see what has and hasn’t worked.

Six members of the rural South Carolina commission, from Allendale and Columbia, traveled to Tamaqua on Friday.

They started their day with breakfast at Hope and Coffee, welcomed by Tamaqua Mayor Nathan Gerace.

Then it was off to the studio of world renowned painter Joseph Marioni, who moved his base of operations from New York City to Tamaqua about 13 years ago.

Marioni welcomed the visitors with a tour of his studio and an in-depth account of why he moved to Tamaqua.

“Even 13 years ago, it was obvious that Tamaqua was undergoing a rebirth. New York had become extremely expensive and wasn’t as welcoming to artists as when I first opened my studio there. I needed space, a reasonable commute time and a welcoming community. I found it all here.”

The group enjoyed lunch at the Tamaqua Station Restaurant with Leona Rega, Kyle Whitley and Wandie Little of the Tamaqua Community Arts Center, owners Mel and John Ross, Loren Collura from Hope & Coffee and Kevin Smith of the Wagon Works. Open and honest dialogue about the challenges small towns have faced with declining populations, work opportunities, addiction and empty store fronts were met with stories of hope as the group discussed the changes Tamaqua is currently experiencing. After lunch, the group toured the Wagon Works facility, an active makerspace site created by artist Kevin Smith. Next was a tour of the Tamaqua Community Arts Center, where the group was able to look at the logistics of programs like Dear Tamaqua, Tamaqua Has Heart, Raw Aspirations and the Escape Rooms. The success of these programs involved key components involving the arts, partnerships with local government, law enforcement, businesses, nonprofits, schools and residents.

When asked what they hoped to take away from the exchange dialogue, Susan DuPlessis shared that the accomplishments of Tamaqua are truly a model that should be recognized nationally. Nate Harley shared that coming to Tamaqua has given him hope that when he returns to Allendale, they can put in motion a plan unique to their area that will mirror the success Tamaqua is experiencing. “We can visualize and feel the passion you possess and will take it home with us.”

“I think that when you look back over the 25 years, after the TACP took the first steps in organizing a group of people with a vision to make Tamaqua a better place, you know that it must have almost felt like an impossible task that would take many years to accomplish. It was extremely emotional to share those grass root beginnings with another team of individuals from several states away. Fast forwarding to today, recognizing all those along the way who were key, important and made a difference in the Tamaqua we now see. The hard work, the determination and monumental efforts of projects and the change of attitude and perception that we hoped we occur has, and now, inspires others,” said Leona Rega director of the Arts Center. “It makes me proud to call Tamaqua my home.”

The group ended their day with a visit to South Tamaqua for a tour of Stonehedge Gardens with Tom Moroz before dinner.

A group from South Carolina visited Tamaqua on Friday to see how the borough is incorporating art and culture into community development. They met with world renowned artist Joseph Marioni, who relocated to Tamaqua about 13 years ago. KATHY KUNKEL/TIMES NEWS
Artist Joseph Marioni, left, discusses integrating arts and culture into the community with a group of visitors from South Carolina, including Mae Helen “Stoney” Hartley, Nate Hartley, LaWanda Patterson and Lottie Lewis. The group also included Susan DuPlessis and videographer Carl Heyward. KATHY KUNKEL/TIMES NEWS