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Staging A One-Man Revival TheaterWorks Founder's Vision, Effort Produces Hartford Arts Linchpin On Pearl Street

Tom Condon

February 15, 2009

Steve Campo is a stream-of-consciousness talker. He says what he's thinking, then might find another way to put it, then might reformulate it again. This might drive you nuts if you were double-parked, but I've learned over the years to stay with him. He usually arrives at a good idea.

As he has yet again.

I sat with the TheaterWorks impresario the other day, in the new cafe inside the new art gallery in his newly renamed building in Hartford.

Many of his 6,000 subscribers probably don't know this, but the theater owns its beautiful 1927-vintage Moorish Revival building on Pearl Street, and has for 15 years. But the 200-seat basement theater never had the lobby space and other amenities Campo wanted.

That problem has been solved, and then some. Campo has renovated much of the three-story building, now called City Arts on Pearl. The first floor now has a satellite art gallery of the fabulous New Britain Museum of American Art, called the Gallery of American Art, and a bistro inside the gallery operated by bin228 Café and Wine Bar across the street, named bistro233.

There is also gallery space in the lobby, along with a new signage, carpeting, lighting and other changes. The "Lion of Pearl" fountain in the lobby spouts water once again. It's all really cool.

The Hartford native and son of a famed Trinity professor wanted to breathe life into downtown, and has been improbably successful. Starting a second nonprofit theater company downtown, where the Hartford Stage Company was already established, was a daunting task. TheaterWorks has, since 1985, produced more than 120 plays. The company draws 40,000 people downtown each year and is reviving a street that used to be inert.

If city officials were on the ball, they would build on what Campo has started in the Pearl Street area. They might start by chatting with Campo, who has exhibited a great sense of how downtown revival is done.

• He has from the beginning partnered with the business community. His relationship with the Bronson & Hutensky development firm allowed him to use the Pearl Street building in the 1980s. It was through the good graces of what was then Bank of Boston Connecticut and its executives Oz Griebel and Bruce Wilson that he was able to buy the 32,000-square-foot building for the bargain price of $275,000. (Nice fellow, Griebel. Whatever happened to him?) Today, Campo has a beneficial partnership with Northland Investments.

• He preserved and restored a historic building, a key to reviving downtowns. He's also been helping to maintain the historic former synagogue building next to his, in the hope that someone will develop it. Its revival should be a top priority.

• Campo has turned his building into an incubator for small arts groups; eight — soon to be nine — theater, music and dance groups have space there. Incubators — whether arts, science, tech or business — take advantage of density and synergy, and are something downtown Hartford should have more of. The main tenant in the arts building is a military recruiting office, which has been there for decades (who says there's no federal funding for the arts?).

• TheaterWorks prides itself on being efficient, on having the lowest ratio of administrative staff to budget of any arts organization in the state. Campo said his company, born in poverty, developed a culture of everybody being able to do almost everything. Things being as they are, this may be a good example not only for arts groups, but for governments and private companies as well.

• Also, he manages to get things done quickly. He and Doug Hyland of the New Britain Museum started talking about a collaboration in mid-summer. They had it completed by the end of the year.

The area around Pearl Street, like much of downtown Hartford, has too much surface parking. But it has many more people living nearby than it did when Campo first camped out there. A few strategically placed infill projects, and Pearl Street would be hopping and bopping.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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