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Artists in the news – Mike Elsass

Artists in the News – Mike Elsass featured in the Muse Gallery Newsletter, January-March 2011 (Issue No. 23)

Mike Elsass and Mike Ervin were nominated for a Governor’s Award for the Arts:

An artistic energy has transformed the streets of the Oregon Arts District in downtown Dayton, and much of it can be traced to ideas conceived and brought to fruition by two longtime friends, Dr. Michael Ervin and Mike Elsass.

This transformation features the opening of five new art galleries, the addition of quirky and artistic touches such as knit graffiti and decorative bike racks, and more than $5 million in public and private investment that includes an enhanced street-scape, job creation and improved parking, all of which continues to entice new visitors to the Oregon Arts District.

Fraternity brothers at Ohio University, Mike and Mike began raising families on the same street but were largely out of contact for two decades until their passions in retirement- art and community development- brought them back together. After a career as a health insurance CEO, Ervin continued his leadership in downtown Dayton redevelopment as a full-time volunteer. Among many previous board positions, as chairman of the Downtown Dayton PartnershipErvin played a role in the development of such facilities as the Schuster Performing Arts Center, Fifth Third Field and RiverScape MetroPark. Also a retiree from the insurance industry, Mike Elsass had discovered a love of painting and was showing his rusted steel abstractions in fifteen galleries across the United States, including Chicago, Atlanta and Santa Fe, as well as the prestigious Art Basel Miami Beach.

Elsass based his operations in a studio in Dayton’s Front Street complex, while Ervin renovated a former bar in the city’s Oregon Historic District to occupy as his home. Both frequented the same coffee shop in the district, where they began looking out the windows and pacing the streets to imagine how they could help fight the decline evidenced by the many vacant storefronts around them.

 In February 2008, they announced the creation of the Oregon Arts District, a comprehensive, strategic effort to transform the area into a regional destination that provides a distinctive urban arts and entertainment experience. Ervinmade a private donation of $250,000 as seed money to fund the start-up of several galleries. Ervin and Elsass met with district landlords and negotiated low-cost leases for local artists. The duo met with interested artists, selected those with strong business plans and vision, and agreed to subsidize half the artists’ rent for the first year of their galleries’ operation. Ervin’s seed money also has been used for artist grants to support programming in the galleries and in the district’s public spaces, as well as to hire a part-time coordinator to handle marketing, public relations and the development of such projects as a website and a monthly art hop.

In the meantime, Elsass invested in a gallery of his own, Color of Energy, in which he hosts a variety of community arts events, from opera to belly dancing to boxing, along with an array of visual arts exhibits by established and emerging artists. Elsass’ projects include a unique combination of the community, new artists, and street visibility which generates new interest in the downtown area on an ongoing basis. One such unique concept in the upcoming months will combine art with law enforcement, boxing, tiki and horseracing in order to bring together various community interests and persona. Elsass is also involved in the marketing and mentoring of young artists to show nationally, which will gain recognition for the Dayton region as well, as these talented artists continue to grow and emerge.

Since the Oregon Arts District initiative was launched, the area has continued to leverage public-sector investment.Ervin and City of Dayton leaders determined that despite ongoing budget difficulties, funds should be dedicated to improving the district’s decades-old infrastructure. The city then committed $850,000 to fully renovate a parking lot, providing free, secure and well-lit parking improvements and $570,000 to overhaul the aging street-scape, including new crosswalks, planters, trashcans and sidewalks. The city will soon invest another $184,000 to enhance the connection between the downtown Dayton core and the Oregon Arts District through improved lighting, and in 2014 it plans to invest another $400,000 in improvements to district-wide infrastructure.

The private sector has invested substantially as well, with businesses and organizations citing the new energy generated by the Arts District as a primary reason for opening up shop there. The Dayton Theater Guild has invested $725,000 to transform a previously vacant building into its new home, and plans to make even more renovations as funds are raised. A new tavern has invested more than $655,000 in renovations, gallery owners have invested $74,000, and owners of local businesses including a yoga studio and restaurant have invested tens of thousands more. Longtime business owners report the addition of the arts has done much to improve the district’s character and their bottom lines, as foot traffic has steadily increased in the past few years.

Volunteers have also been inspired by the Arts District initiative. What previously was a weed-filled vacant lot in the district has been transformed into Garden Station, a community art park that hosts numerous arts events, and features garden plots tended to by district inhabitants, as well as wall murals painted by local artists. The Arts District continues to fuel significant growth of downtown Dayton’s monthly art hop, First Friday. What started as an event in one gallery has expanded to become a branded and much anticipated city-wide event that takes place on the first Friday of each month. Nearly every month, a new organization participates and other businesses have joined the mix, with businesses ranging from fitness studios to hair salons displaying art. In 2011, First Friday grew significantly with the addition of a summer concert series, a passport program sponsored by AAA, and a scavenger hunt hosted by a young professionals organization, all of which encouraged visitors to make their way to multiple locations during the First Friday festivities.

After seeing the tremendous impact in the Oregon Arts District, Ervin and Elsass expanded their focus to a larger geographic region. Ervin spearheaded development of the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan, a blueprint for the revitalization of downtown Dayton. Elsass has also been active in the development of the Plan, and volunteers are now working on strategies and funding for such projects as joint arts marketing, creative reuse of vacant spaces, and bolstering live music and arts programming in public spaces. Dr. Ervin currently serves as co-chair for the Plan, along with City of Dayton Manager Tim Riordan, co-chair of the Downtown Dayton Partnership, and City of Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell.

The influence of Ervin’s and Elsass’ work has been and continues to be felt exponentially by visitors to downtown Dayton and the Arts District. Their impact only continues to grow as more individuals and organizations are inspired by the example set by these two men and choose to invest in the city. Through the vision and dedication of Dr. Ervin and Mr. Elsass, the arts truly remain alive in downtown Dayton and continue to be a tremendous asset for the entire region.