Consultant says Springfield should Seuss-ify and diversify into an arts mecca

SPRINGFIELD -- Beloved children's author Roald Dahl was born in Cardiff, Wales, and that city celebrates him by rolling a building-size "Giant Peach" down its main street on his birthday in celebration of his famous children's novel.

So what is Springfield willing to do for its own author of quirky children's books -- native son Dr. Seuss, who was born Theodor Seuss Geisel here in 1904?

It's one of the questions posed Wednesday by Tim Jones, head of strategy for the London-based consulting firm Futurecity as he laid a case that Springfield, Worcster and Boston need to use the arts to foster economic and real estate development as well as a sense of community and hopefulness to drive their collective futures.

Jones spoke at a morning meeting of the Springfield Central Cultural District at the Ninth Floor Gallery in the MassLive Building, 1350 Main St.

Springfield, Jones said, should focus on Seuss, on opening up connections to the Connecticut River, on having clear and helpful wayfinding signage and information that is also whimsical and fun, of connecting youth to downtown and of integrating the city's various cultures into the downtown arts scene.

Ideas include making use of space under the Interstate 91 viaduct as an arts venue, similar to Toronto's Overpass Park.

Another idea is to host a sort of community potluck meal where all Springfield's cultural groups can mix and learn from one another.

In terms of capitalizing on Seuss, the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum -- a project by the Springfield Museums in cooperation with the late writer's heirs -- is currently under construction at the Quadrangle and set to open in 2017.

Placemaking, Jones said, is the burgeoning art of transforming space -- a sidewalk, a hallway, a concrete pad under a highway overpass -- into a place that is interesting and inviting and a space people want to be.

"We come at that from the point of view of cultural -- broadly defined," Jones said.

That means it doesn't have to be just art galleries and chamber music.

"It is everything from green space, public parks, youth programs, businesses," Jones said.

London-based Futurecity started studying the arts climate and the arts potential to lead a renewal in Springfield, Worcester and in Boston in July as a project paid for by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Boston Foundation. The cultural council -- a state agency -- and the foundation are each paying $75,000, according to a memorandum of understanding provided in response to a public records request by The Republican.  

Futurecity founder Mark Davy came to tour all three cities. 

Futurecity has worked all over the world in major cities like Sydney, Australia, and the boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea in London. Jones said Springfield and Worcester are smaller, yet primed for success.

He cited MGM Springfield and the CRRC Ma rail car plant here and MassDigi, the Massachusetts Digital Games institute, in Worcester.

"Form our outside perspective, there is a real sense that that a renewal is coming," Jones said. "That lends this effort a sense of urgency."

There are challenges, Jones said. Both Springfield and Worcester have too much vacant and unused space in the downtown. College students, be they at Holy Cross or at Springfield College, don't feel connected to their respective cities.

Anita Walker, head of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said the work by Jones and Futurecity has arts organizations talking with real estate developers talking with city officials across the state. From those conversations, collaboration will grow.

"That for me, is the book's last chapter," Walker said.

As for the Giant Peach, Jones said Cardiff officials expected it to draw 50,000 people. They got 100,000.

"To really appreciate it, you have to see this giant peach through the eyes of children," Jones said. "There is a giant peach rolling around, thisthing that no sensible grownup would ever stage for them."