An old and unused building that once housed Miami University’s food service operations may soon become a hub for innovative startups and business incubation.
Oxford City Council has voted to allow City Manager Doug Elliott to apply for state funding for the revitalization of the building at 20 S. Elm St., in partnership with the university. The building looks across Elm Street to the gardens and amphitheater of the Oxford Community Arts Center.
On Tuesday, Miami University President Gregory Crawford gave a testimony in Washington to a congressional subcommittee on innovation and workforce development.
“This strategy, built in collaboration with the City of Oxford and our rural stakeholders, will restore economic viability to our community and serve as a model for small towns across rural America,” Crawford said.
The hub will be a place where people could come with their business ideas and get help shaping those ideas, according to Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene. It will be an incubator for start-up businesses and will decrease the need for potential entrepreneurs to drive to large cities for help with their business ideas, she said in an interview with the Observer.
“We want to be a model for rural communities,” Greene said.
Greene said one factor that went into the idea for the hub was the hope that it will encourage creativity and engagement in the arts.
“We have an amazing community arts center right across the street, so we are hoping to create some synergy between the two,” Greene said.
“Step one is to get funding,” Greene said. The city is hoping to raise $10 million, from grants, and other sources that aren’t tax dollars. The hope is to attract an anchor business to the hub and let the entrepreneurs and startups grow around that.
Because it is so early in the planning stages, it is unknown who or what that anchor might be, she said.
“The project would create more jobs for the city,” Elliott told the city council at the Feb. 4 meeting.
“We feel that this project has merit,” Elliott told the council. “It's going to focus on the arts in our community.” At the meeting, Elliott cited urban studies theorist Richard Florida, and his books on the creative class which talk about the role of arts in the rise of communities.
The building, built in 1933, used to be home to Miami’s food service operation. According to Cody Powell, Miami’s Associate Vice President of Facilities and Planning, after the food service operations moved out, the building was used for miscellaneous storage until about five years ago. Powell said the building is in pretty good condition, however some updates need to be done to the roof and the mechanical systems. The main floors of the building have large open spaces, and portions of the building were used as offices. Powell said Miami once considered selling the property, but decided against that decision.
“We wanted to be careful about what function it would have after it would’ve been sold and what function it would have for the community,” Powell said.
Council member David Prytherch commended the university for the project.
“I really commend Miami for seeing more long range visions for how development there could play with the community arts center and adjacent to our new municipal building,” Prytherch told council.
On Feb. 3, city leaders met to discuss their goals for the year. One of the main goals mentioned in that meeting was economic development. City leaders mentioned that one of their strategies for improving economic development would be providing more diverse businesses. According to Greene, this is a step in their economic development strategy.
Rachel Maxann, described in her publicity material as a vintage indie artist, is used to performing in concert before boisterous crowds roaming about on dance floors. Thursday night she went onstage from her living room for an Oxford audience.
Thursday night was the second of Enjoy Oxford’s summer Uptown Concert Series. Maxann, a Cincinnati native, performed through a Facebook Live feed which she and Enjoy Oxford streamed. The performance was live to a total of 1,300 people and had a reach of 3,300 people. Maxann played some of her own songs while also taking requests from viewers.
Under COVID-19 restrictions, live musical performers have had to significantly modify their methods of operation.
Online concerts lack the intimacy and engagement a concert experience usually offers, Maxann said. “Now people send hearts and likes instead of clapping. Virtual tips through Venmo and PayPal have replaced the dollars in the jar,” she said.
According to Maxann, performing virtually has been an interesting experience. She said that performing live, “...you are able to feed off the energy in a different way.” Her favorite part about virtual performing is the fundraising. Facebook has created along with livestream concerts the ability for artists to direct viewers straight to a charity link and donate, instead of giving tips. Maxann said she believes this method is effective because it cuts out the middleman and allows the viewer to donate right to the charity.
In these times, when health and safety are paramount, organizing a concert comes with many difficulties. Kim Daggy, executive director of Enjoy Oxford, has made the effort to keep the 34-year Uptown concert tradition alive. She booked Lee Gantt, a country music artist, who over a two-week period brought in 1,400 total views and reached 8,700 people for the season’s first virtual uptown concert June 4. Daggy said that live streams are not nearly as popular as viewing the video recording of the performance in the days after the concert
Daggy said she would like to return to in-person concerts as soon as possible, but the forecast for live music returning is still uncertain. “We want in person, but COVID-19 has a different agenda and with students coming back you need to keep the community and the students safe,” she said. We have structure in place if in-person can happen, but are prepared for a virtual future.”