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Nine questions with architect Rick Hauser

Rick Hauser is an architect and mayor of the village of Perry, N.Y. He will open the 2016 Old House Fair in Bellefonte on April 29.
Rick Hauser is an architect and mayor of the village of Perry, N.Y. He will open the 2016 Old House Fair in Bellefonte on April 29. Photo provided

If you want to kick off a celebration of the region’s historic architecture, you bring in a mayor — or an architect.

Rick Hauser will bring the best of both worlds to the table when he opens the 2016 Old House Fair in Bellefonte on April 29 with a workshop on revitalization.

In addition to his responsibilities as the mayor of the village of Perry, N.Y., Hauser manages Perry New York LLC, a for-profit investment corporation that has worked to revitalize Perry’s downtown by attracting new businesses and rehabilitating existing buildings. Nearly a decade ago, he developed the anti-blight tool “Main Street, LLC,” which urges people to “put their money where their house is.”

Below, Hauser, who is also a founding partner with In.Site: Architecture, talks more about Perry New York LLC and what audiences can expect from from his workshop.

Q: How did you become involved with the 2016 Old House Fair in Bellefonte?

A: Joseph Griffin (of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association) reached out to me. Apparently he got my name from Ed McMahon, of the Urban Land Institute, with whom I had co-presented at a CIRD (Citizen’s Institute for Rural Design) workshop a few years ago. Ed had recalled the “broad-based” approach we’ve been using in Perry and across New York state, and thought it would be a compelling story and relevant for Bellefonte.

Q: You identify as a “frontier architect.” How would you define that?

A: It’s probably more of a wonky, in-house term, but essentially we are a firm based “outside the centers of fashion.” I married a dairy farmer and have managed to grow an eight-person practice out of the Finger Lakes region and western N.Y., (the “frontier,”) where we have to roam far and wide to find like-minded clients (or for them to find us) who want to “saddle up” for some adventure.

Q: How do you think architecture can play a leading role within a community?

A: Architecture is a tool to facilitate community and a catalyst for positive change and innovation. At its best, it also shows a respect for the wisdom, resources and possibilities of the past. All these ideas intersect in particular in downtowns, where the “built environment” is both private and public. Main Street is our proverbial community living room, as well as the “front door” that welcomes visitors. And yet, it’s composed of privately-owned buildings.

For me, architecture has been a way to navigate toward creative solutions that seek to honor the community’s long-view and address long-standing problems through designing not just the buildings, but the community infrastructure to sustain and support private and public investment.

Q: Nine years ago, you developed an anti-blight tool called “Main Street, LLC.” What was the need you identified?

A: Well, what doesn’t work anymore, and why? I don’t need to re-tell the story of downtown decline. But I can at least point out some simple truths. In my experience, a downtown’s poor condition is usually not due to lack of pride, volunteerism or expertise that resides in a community. It’s often not a reflection of the demand that exists for space, or of government apathy, or of a lack of citizens who would like to see change.

It often is tied to a disconnect — a chasm really — between the scale of the buildings and motives of the current building owners. In the past, larger buildings were built or owned by larger entities — department stores, theaters, hotels, etc. — who had an ability, understanding and desire to consider long-term returns on their investments. So, as communities seek to reinvent their downtowns, the question that often needs to be asked is: Who now has the long-term interest — and the capital — to invest appropriately to salvage, maintain and rehabilitate these structures, and see the return on those investments come to pass?

Q: You tested your concept with Perry New York LLC. What effect do you think or hope it has had on the village?

A: Perry has been our living laboratory and where we’ve seen the impact firsthand and for longest. I’ll be sharing its story as a case study. In the past nine years we’ve seen reinvestment downtown totaling more than $2.5 million, 27 new businesses supporting more than 80 new workers come downtown and gorgeous market-rate apartments come online that have a wait list. With a recent round of matching grant funding announced, the village has received applications for a further 18 projects totaling more than $1.1 million over the next 18 months. The village also will be doing about $1 million of streetscape improvements downtown this summer, including the kind of pedestrian improvements, amenities and traffic-calming measures that often precede investment. In this case, I’d argue that Perry New York LLC was the catalyst. It’s not responsible for all those buildings, dollars or infrastructure improvements. But it addressed a long-standing conundrum that had been stymying downtown re-investment and shined a spotlight back on downtown and showed a path forward.

Q: How has your experience with Perry New York LLC helped to shape your work with other communities looking to spur downtown re-investment?

A: We have worked with communities within about a five- to six-hour radius of Perry (a radius which includes most of Pennsylvania) and have learned valuable lessons from each. But Perry is the deepest well for me, still. It’s my hometown. I helped launch Last Night Perry here in 1998, Perry Farmers Market in 2002, the Perry Main Street Association in 2005, Perry Chalk Art Festival in 2007, and I was elected mayor in 2013. The one obvious lesson from this list is that a successful revitalization effort requires coordinated action on many fronts. Rehabbing buildings is just one. Community organization, community pride, adding tools to the toolkit, business recruitment and retention, vibrant signature events, they’re all just as important. Local government has a role to play, but sometimes its most valuable role is helping seed and nurture outside efforts. Leverage the resources, energy and expertise that reside in a community.

Q: What kind of communities do you think would benefit from something like this?

A: Well, my talk is subtitled “community entrepreneurism and the case for private sector rehab.” This mindset of community entrepreneurism is the real deal and I think is almost universally relevant. As I define it, CE is the commitment of community leaders to invent business models that bridge the gap between short-term financial self-interest (that has suffocated so many communities) and long-range community self-interest. Main Street LLC is simply one embodiment of that. Also in Perry you have community LLCs buying and rehabbing old houses, you have one that’s opening a craft microbrewery downtown; you have an artist’s co-op opening this year downtown, for a few more examples. It’s contagious!

Q: What are some of the obstacles in restoring a deteriorating building to useful condition?

A: You need to put all available tools to work to make it financially feasible to make the generational investment required. And you need people who are in it for the long haul.

Q: What are some of the rewards?

A: The rewards of a Main Street LLC are qualitative in the short- and medium-term. As I like to say, “put your money where your house is.” An investment in your community pays itself back in many ways and puts you in the driver’s seat. It creates dozens of community “cheerleaders,” people who have skin in the game and are now downtown’s newest advocates.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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