RESURRECTING A GHOST TOWN

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The reality is the city of Putnam, Connecticut, was washed up. Like many New England textile mill towns, it once stood tall as part of America’s industrial revolution. During the 1950’s the mills moved south and then to the Far East. Trains came no more. The waterwheels stopped and the proud, redbrick factories and downtown buildings went empty. Putnam was dying along with its belief in itself.

That was the reality of Putnam through the downturn of 2009. Then a new reality came to town: Paul Toussaint. He’s a hero – should have made a fortune. But he did more than that. He denied the reality of ghost town Putnam’s and helped bring resurrection.

Paul is a short, slim intense bundle of energy. He’s a wavy-haired artist: An i Photographer. Instead of a camera, he takes pictures with an iPhone. He’s also an urban redeveloper. He has a unique vision of the world and can surprise you. He surprised Putnam by giving it hope. His magic sauce? His pop-up art gallery. He rented one of Main Street’s many vacant storefront properties. He cleaned the dilapidated old premises, painted the walls, sanded down the rotten floor timbers, and installed new exhibition lighting. Presto! The town had a bright, modern gallery at practically no cost.

People took notice. Pied Piper Paul exhibited local artists and then set about creating a buzz. He charmed newspapers, radio stations, and students. By force of personality, he could turn out a crowd where no crowd existed. He lured people in with poetry readings, concerts, lectures, and painting classes. He would do anything to generate gallery traffic.

Here comes the magic part: Retailers won’t come into a town if there’s no foot traffic. Abandoned storefronts, no tenants and broken windows beget more empty storefronts in an economic death spiral. But the reverse is also true: A well-maintained, active shop can bring in more tenants and attract other businesses. How do you reverse this cycle? What kind of store can you find that doesn’t need profits?

Think about the unique economic calculus of art galleries for a moment. Rent: What rent? Landlords in abandoned mill towns prefer a clean, active storefront to a dirty, vacant one. Rent is almost nonexistent. Labor cost? Paul is an artist. He just wants to exhibit his pictures. That is the measure of his success, not a salary. Cost of goods sold? Artists are more than willing to fill the gallery on a cost-free consignment basis.

A town with derelicts sleeping in the door fronts finds it difficult to attract conventional stores. Paul’s bright innovative gallery offered something special: Cachet. An art exhibition or poetry reading brings in few dollar sales, but gallery traffic is the very upscale shoppers the town needs. Soon the derelicts disappear.

Even among artists, Paul is out on the far fringes. Paul became a recognized pioneer of iPhotography and is gaining a following in the press. He shoots with his iPhone, then goes home to work with Photoshop to “sculpt” the pictures into art.

You who live in a world of hedge funds, stock brokers, or collect a weekly paycheck, you might say this lean, scrappy young man is crazy. Why fritter away your day trying to keep a gallery open? Profits in this business are a pipe dream. Why does he persist?

Come the summer street fair season, well-dressed customers crowd into Paul’s exhibitions, money flows and there is a hint of glamour. The gallery is classy and exciting. But then there are also the rainy snowy days. A week passes and no sales or even customers. In winter the building isn’t just lonely- Its cold. The furnace rusted out years earlier so Paul sits huddled over a space heater, holding a pen in his cold fingers, planning his next show. He keeps the gallery going because he’s a courageous guy who dreams dreams. With each new exhibition opening, he imagines his gallery is in a town that will not only repair its buildings and broken windows but also has an eye for aesthetics. Walking the gritty streets of Putnam, you would not confuse the town with Renaissance Florence or Bohemian Paris. Does Putnam even know about aesthetics? Can it support Paul?

But Paul dwells on a different question: “Can I afford to support this town?”

For three years, the answer was yes. His exhibitions brought in a bustle of upscale shoppers in the evenings. In addition, Paul often got to exhibit his own works and that was big for him. The building owner was delighted because his property’s value increased. When the gallery paid its first token rent the building went from being a liability to an asset. Soon after his value soared when a commercial bike shop rented the remainder of the premises at market rates. Just by being there, Paul contributed to the landlord’s net worth and the town’s rehab.

While Putnam has continued to attract more and more upscale activity, sadly, after three years of successful shows, Paul’s lease for the gallery was terminated. The bicycle shop wanted to expand. They offered to pay higher rent to take over the art exposition space. No landlord can resist a rent increase. Paul was out. His “baby”—the gallery he had nursed through a difficult birth—was closed. Paul was again unemployed.

But Paul has unbounded enthusiasm and talent for what he does. He has since found three other vacant spaces in three other Connecticut mill towns. After helping to resurrect Putnam’s central business district, he has moved on and is now trying to work his magic again.