When I moved to Harwich, about six years ago, I could not help but notice the old Recreation Building on Sisson Road, a most displeasing sight to behold. In the heart of the historic district, this building and, I found out later, its twin the West Harwich School, was built in 1871. I also found out that, over the years, both of the buildings held forth checkered careers in education and youth and recreation, ultimately surrendering to lack of funding.
For the past ten years or more, both buildings have fallen into disrepair. It was sad for me to think that a relatively prosperous town would allow this to happen, especially since the Sisson Road building is on a main thoroughfare. I asked myself then, and still do, what impact has this had on visitors and tourism, on potential home buyers, on home values, and on commerce?
I can only suppose that in the past ideas for the use of the buildings did not gain the traction needed to put the buildings back into productive use and that these ideas were not viable for creating a stand-alone operation free from the taxpayer rolls. There can be no fault with that. Maybe the benefits did not balance with the costs. In any event, until now the buildings have been in limbo.
Somehow, the wisdom of the townspeople prevailed in 2002 when a resolution passed to consign the buildings to recreational, educational, or cultural use. Like a tiny candlelight in the darkness, this resolution saved the buildings, but no action followed until three years later when the wisdom of the Board of Selectmen moved the bar up another notch when they, in response to a community effort to find a non-profit organization willing to sign a lease to take over the buildings, tasked the Harwich Cultural Council(HCC) to come up with a vision for the buildings. Prior to this, the Harwich Housing Committee recommended building affordable housing on both sites, and, through another bit of wisdom, agreed to collaborate with the HCC to include exterior renovations to the buildings along with the housing plans.
From then on, the focus of the HCC has been on a vision of cultural centers, looking beyond the hammer and nails, and what will go on in the buildings to breathe new life into them for the benefit of the community.
Why cultural centers? It starts with the premise that a cultural center is a highly effective tool in building and sustaining healthy, livable communities. (quote from the Massachusetts Cultural Council). A cultural center is an effective vehicle through which culture and cultural arts are passed on to future generations, and in so doing, creates a positive atmosphere for young people growing up in the town. A cultural center helps the economy, increases tourism, and, in as many ways as you can think of, raises the level of society in many ways. All of these premises are backed up by extensive research.
What about Harwich? Why have a cultural center in Harwich when there are so many offerings on Cape Cod?
The town of Harwich is not just a collection of brick and mortar, not just conservation land, not just boat moorings, not just countless lakes and ponds. It is a feeling, an impression, a reason for living here beyond basic shelter. It is a diverse community of caring people and it is clearly demonstrated through the programs at its schools, Community Center, Brooks Museum, and Brooks Free Library.
Consider the potential of the two historic buildings. Fill those buildings with well-selected programs, such as lectures, demonstrations, performances, exhibits, and workshops by artists in their respective fields at a meet the artist level; worthy programs in the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences; no need to create another Museum of Modern Art or a Symphony Hall or a Museum of Fine Arts, or a Hayden Planetarium. The possibilities are unlimited; a way to combine with the other Harwich programs to bring out the heart and soul of Harwich, enhance the spirit of community through the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences.
We can fix the brick and mortar, but the reason why is a legacy to pass on to future generations. It is not what the building is or what it looks like, it is not a short-lived entertainment center; it is what emanates from its core, a gathering place where people share ideas, experience the arts, humanities, and interpretive sciences, and invest their minds in creative pursuits.
The exterior renovations of the two buildings, if all goes well, will take place in 2007 without cost to the taxpayer. They will be restored to their historic form. But, in order to bring the buildings to life, there is much to do. The interior renovations will require such things as a security system, elevators, furnishings, display cases, etc.. In addition, funds will be needed for building maintenance, operations, and program management.
The Friends of the Harwich Cultural Exchange Centers, Inc. (a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization), a.k.a. CEC has been formed to open up opportunities for community members to take part in this historic effort through donations of time or money. For donations of time contact John Prophet at jprophet.earthlink.net or phone 508-430-7850. To take part with money, checks payable to CEC, c/o Jack E. Brown, Treasurer, 27 Vacation Lane, Harwich, MA 02645. Other donations such as endowments, charitable remainder trusts, bequests, etc. will be help immensely in making the vision a reality for Harwich.