Teamwork key to Gorgeous Washington success

Sometimes, even the folks who specialize in communication need to hear about the importance of communicating.

Communication and collaboration among members have been key to the success of the Gorgeous Washington Street Association, GWSA Chairman Rob Wandell said Tuesday (March 16) at the monthly meeting of the Communications Association of the Southern Tier, an organization of photographers, writers, marketing and public relations professionals, graphic designers and others in the communications field.

Because GWSA members often also belong to the Downtown Binghamton Business Association and the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce, Wandell said, “We know what other organizations do. We link rather than have double booking and (then) leaving gaps” in the calendar. When scheduling events, he added, “It’s good to know what else is going on.”

A hometown boy and Binghamton University engineering graduate, Wandell has been making African-style drums for 25 years. When he decided to make the career change from IBM microchip designer to fulltime entrepreneur, he looked around the urban areas of Broome County to see where he wanted to open a store and decided that the “heart that I wanted to feed” was in the downtown Binghamton area. Imagicka, selling custom-made drums and eclectic gifts, started on the Washington Street Commons, and Wandell quickly became active in the Gorgeous Washington Street Association.

Wandell’s store is now located around the corner from the Commons at 15 Hawley St., Binghamton, a small symbol of the expanded reach of the GWSA. The association no longer is just for Washington Street; members are located throughout downtown Binghamton and even as far afield as Windsor. And, although the organization is most closely associated with the monthly First Friday art walk, its 80-plus membership  — banks, restaurants, performing arts groups, churches, community service agencies – is far more than galleries.

“We’re a lot like Burlington Coat Factory,” Wandell joked, “a lot more than coats.”

Fine art and flowers

But, yes, the art walk is the most visible face of the GWSA. It is what the public thinks of when the association is mentioned, and the association’s coordinated scheduling and promotion of the event – brochures, press releases, etc. – is a primary reason for members to pay their annual fees ($175 for small businesses, double for larger corporations).

GWSA, Wandell said, strives to counteract the old “work downtown and then get the hell out of Dodge” mentality by playing up the city’s after-five strengths as “an environment for eating, having fun and enjoying” oneself. A lot of that effort involves improving perceptions.

“If you create a perception, you can create a reality,” he said, adding that most people who come to one First Friday walk come back month after month.

GWSA’s other big project is sprucing up the Washington Street Commons and other downtown areas.  Professional gardeners team with students and other volunteers to plant and maintain these green areas. During mild weather, the planters attract brown-bagging downtown workers who Wandell hopes will go home and talk about their pleasant experience, again helping to create a more favorable perception of downtown Binghamton.

The gardening is another example of GWSA’s cooperation with other groups. The City of Binghamton actually owns the raised beds, so the city provides compost and top soil and hauls away weeds pulled by GWSA volunteers. Compost is shoveled and deep holes for trees are dug by people performing mandatory community service for Broome County.

On the upswing

Wandell, returning to the idea of perception, downplayed concerns about parking, decay and public safety in a downtown area that he describes as “getting better every year.” He expressed hope for improved commercial occupancy in the five years.

First Friday caught on because “the city was itching for something to do.” It continues to succeed, Wandell said, because it offers a free, accessible blend of entertainment, including the more traditional galleries on State Street and the shops and outdoor performances on the Washington Street Commons. Although it has been suggested that GWSA expand the event to other Fridays, the association likes the current arrangement. Instead, it is exploring ways to attract people to downtown during other parts of the weekend.

Currently, there is only one “First Saturday” a year, in December, and it’s a near-carbon copy of the art-centric previous night. If other Saturday events are planned, Wandell said, the galleries should “take a back seat,” and the event should feature, perhaps, family activities to draw a new audience. He noted that Imagicka has taken a step towards full weekend access with Sunday hours, and he’s hoping other GWSA members will follow suit and not leave him with a case of “first dancer syndrome” (you know, he explained, where you’re the first couple out on the dance floor – and you’re the ONLY couple for the next four songs).

The next First Friday will be 6 to 9 p.m. April 2.

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