When Jill Koski learned that the new owner of the old Star-Gazette building was planning to convert the sprawling structure into a regional arts center, she was skeptical.
After all, the facility has gone unoccupied for over five years, and concerns have been expressed about possible environmental issues with the more than century-old building.
But since meeting Juvenal Reis and discussing his vision, Koski, senior economic development specialist at Southern Tier Economic Growth, has been more optimistic that Reis can make his grand design work.
This is especially true because Reis worked closely with the local art community to shape the future of the project, Koski said.
“I was worried because the building was bought through an online auction, on the face of it,” Koski said. “There was real potential that we were dealing with an absent owner who would not have the capacity to manage let alone take on a massive adaptive reuse project.
“(Reis) has developed a good relationship with Lynne Rusinko at Community Arts and she has put him in touch with people who can help manage the building while the plans are being formulated and he is able to get the full picture and realistic about any environmental problem through a site assessment, “she said. “It appears open to input from the local arts community on the final vision for the building.”
Related:As Elmira region reopens from coronavirus, arts and culture organizations hope to inspire, entertain
Building on past successes
Reis, who grew up in Brazil but lived in the United States for over 30 years, spent several years in the hospitality industry before developing a passion for the arts.
He established Reis Studios in the Long Island City section of Queens in 2002, and the current 80,000 square foot facility offers over 190 private studios and is home to over 200 artists from 35 countries.
This success can be replicated on a small scale in small communities, Reis said.
“People come to New York. People all over the world want to go. Why not Elmira? he said. “The Beacon Arts Center is a great example. It is transforming the whole city, and Poughkeepsie is capturing that traffic. We have to look at the economic impact. Art becomes a commodity that everyone wants.”
Although Reis was not personally involved with the Beacon Center, he was involved in similar projects in other communities, including playing a key role in the redevelopment of a Depression-era auto garage in Ogden, Utah, into a community art studio and event space. .
He is developing similar concepts in Brooklyn and Taylorville, Ill., And plans to establish franchise operations in other communities across the country.
Now Reis is hoping that she can do something similar to Elmira.
“We want to turn Elmira into a destination, using the arts as a tool to bring people here,” he said. “Right now visitors go through Elmira to get to Corning. We want people to go through Corning to get to Elmira. One possibility is a visitor center inside the building. be a great idea.
“It’s not fictional,” Reis added. “It’s real.”
Addressing environmental issues
Reis bought the 50,000 square foot Star-Gazette building from Gannett Co. for $ 215,000 at an auction in November and closed the sale in late December.
The Star-Gazette moved its offices out of the building at 201 Baldwin Street at the end of 2015 and the building has remained inactive since then.
Reis initially hoped to start renovations by April, but said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed that process.
Politics:Early retirement for teachers and civil servants in New York: what lawmakers say about their proposal
Additionally, during discussions with Elmira town officials, Reis learned that he had to complete an environmental assessment before anything else happened.
The review is a routine step, city officials said, especially for older buildings, and Reis said there were a few specific issues, including an old gas station that was once located in this which is now the parking lot.
He said he is in talks with a local contractor to do the necessary work.
“I had no idea the building needed such a lot of work. I need a professional inspection and this is the next step,” Reis said. “The problem now is how do we clean up this place and make the building OK so we can move on?”
“We need an architect who can transform it. We have a vision,” he said. “How are we going to do this? We can’t take any short cuts.”
Building local ties
Reis did not wait idly for an environmental assessment to be completed.
He has made several trips to Elmira since purchasing the building and has contacted Community Arts of Elmira and other organizations, as well as city officials and tour groups.
The idea is to listen to their ideas and come up with an action plan that best suits Elmira, rather than trying to impose his will on the local arts community, he said.
His ideas and approach are warmly welcomed locally.
“Juvenal embodies community collaboration. He has extensive experience in building communities through arts and culture, ”said Rusinko of Community Arts of Elmira.
“Elmira is going through a dynamic period of creative synergy and economic synergy,” she said. “Connecting locally and globally is not a dream. It is present. It happens.
Business:Jobs in New York: Why businesses face a labor shortage amid COVID-19
The old Star-Gazette building is located in the second district of Elmira, represented on the city council by Brent Stemer, who is also active in the promotion of the arts.
Stemer said he’s impressed with what Reis has accomplished in Long Island City and beyond, and is excited to see how this vision can help transform Elmira.
“Basically, he plans to develop a creative space with community participation that will occur once the building is stabilized,” Stermer said. “He knows that such a project must add value to Elmira and be developed in collaboration with the Elmirians themselves.
“Seeing how Reis Studios changed the face of Long Island City excites me to think of another of our city’s treasured historic spaces being reimagined for all of Elmira to see,” Stermer said.
Reis is consulting with historic architects Johnson-Schmidt & Associates on potential renovations to the building and is also considering converting the parking lot along Clemens Center Parkway to a sculpture garden.
The immediate plan is to clean up the space as much as possible and start using it for art projects, and then consider adding other features as resources become available, Reis said.
The most important part of the building’s vision is to make it a focal point that will help integrate the arts into all aspects of life in the Elmira region, he said.
“My biggest goal is to use art as a development tool for the community,” said Reis. “What we want to do goes beyond what you put on the wall. It’s all connected.”
Follow Jeff Murray on Twitter @SGJeffMurray. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.