OARC’s Jack Kitchen explains West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival cancellation, impact

After Tuesday’s news that the 2012 West Oak Lane Jazz & Arts Festival was officially canceled, Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation (OARC) President and Chief Executive Officer Jack Kitchen agreed to answer NewsWorks’ questions about the announcement.

Kitchen’s caveat: Questions had to be submitted in writing. He explained via email that this was because “live interviews in the past have not been accurately or honestly reported with many of the news media in our region.”

What follows are the verbatim answers Kitchen provided within two hours of receiving NewsWorks’ questions. Some of the queries came directly from the wording of OARC’s cancellation-announcement press release.

NewsWorks: How, and when, was the decision to cancel this year’s festival made? Did the lack of state funding play a role in the decision?

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Jack Kitchen: “Cancellation has been discussed for the past two years. I believed we had accomplished what we had set out to do.

“Our decision to continue the past two years was largely based upon our concern of how the economy would affect the community if we discontinued. I am convinced today that West Oak Lane is weathering the economic storm better than most communities.

“Funding from federal, state, city as well as foundation and corporate [sources] has diminished for all non-profits leaving many to struggle and, in some cases, close. OARC has spent the last 15 years investing in commercial and residential real estate and is relatively self sufficient as a result of revenue produced from rentals.”

NW: How will the new “Arts & Culture series” continue bolstering the great impact that the festival had? Are there any details available about when this will start, and what it will look like? What would you say to local business owners who think it will be difficult to replace the economic boost that the festival provided for eight years?

JK: “We are in the early stages of implementing a plan that would have entertainment 12 months of the year as opposed to 2.5 days. I believe that by creating a 12-month entertainment venue, the impact will result in a more consistent year-round attraction to the corridor.”

NW: What has OARC accomplished over the past 10 years? What was the true purpose of the Jazz Festival?

JK: “It is impossible to tell you in a short email what OARC has accomplished in the past 10 years.

“As far as the true purpose of the festival, ‘marketing, marketing, marketing.’ To showcase West Oak Lane as a community of choice.

“During 2000–2003, we were busy attempting to rebuild a neighborhood and commercial corridor. Retail vacancies were high, long-term vacant boarded-up homes numbered well above 300. Homes were undervalued.

“Planted traffic islands were nonexistent. There were few trees along the commercial corridors. Ogontz Avenue was a pothole-riddled corridor that connected Philadelphia and Montgomery counties. As you drove down Route 309 from Montgomery County, your first glimpse of Philadelphia were the large trash dumpsters in front of the businesses; graffiti and trash was a huge problem; last but not least, the former club Jaguar (nuisance bar) and a struggling Cheltenham Mall.

“The intersection of Stenton [Ave.] and Haines [St.] consisted of an abandoned and vacant gas station, while across the street on Haines were approximately 20 vacant and decaying residential properties. Drugs and prostitution was rampant. This is directly across from MLK High School.

“During this time, we were renovating the vacant houses, improving the commercial corridor with planting initiatives, removing the solid metal security grates (ghetto gates), installing colorful store awnings, getting businesses to locate on the commercial corridor.

“The problem: Families and businesses were not moving in as fast as they were moving out.”

NW: What did the Jazz Festival bring to the community, businesses and West Oak Lane in general? How did the festival “restore a once-dying commercial area and decaying residential zone, transforming the community into a vibrant family and business friendly destination”?

JK: “While OARC has always produced a Super Saturday community event, the idea for a regional event hit one weekend as I was watching a Jazz Festival from New Orleans.

“It became clear that if we could pull it off and produce a major regional event, that people would attend from all over the region. I believed that this would give West Oak Lane the much-needed exposure that would justify our initiatives and produce the results that we were looking for. From the very first festival to the last, the results of the marketing surpassed my wildest hopes.

“Today, vacant properties number less than 50. Housing values have caught up to par value (millions upon millions in personal wealth for residents resulted). Millions of dollars have been paid in real estate commissions, transfer and property taxes as the vacant houses were gobbled up and renovated. Working families were coming back!

“The Ogontz Commercial Corridor is stronger than ever. This is contrary to the difficult economy we are in. Today, we have Relish, Green Soul, Victoria’s Kitchen, China House, Dawns Breakfast. We have 3rd Element Spa, Ogontz Global Realty, a full-service PennDOT driver testing center, a Little Caesar’s Pizza and many more. A meat market is under construction and will open shortly. You can come to Ogontz [Plaza] for your license renewal, purchase insurance, grab lunch or dinner, listen to live music at Relish or just visit the spa and unwind.

“OARC has planted nearly 5,000 trees along commercial corridors that include areas such as Chestnut Hill, Nicetown, Germantown, Mt Airy, East and West Oak Lane. Traffic islands have been planted on Ogontz and Stenton Avenues as well as Broad Street. We have restored parks and recreation areas in Germantown.

“The Route 309, Ogontz, Cheltenham Avenue [corridor] is in the final stages of a major overhaul. OARC was fully engaged in the coordinated effort between ShopRite, Cheltenham Mall, SEPTA.

“OARC is in the final stages of completing construction on the Gateway Office Building (former club jaguar and neighboring check cashing store).

“Today, Cheltenham Mall is graced with multiple ‘Pad’ sites that include Chili’s, TD North and Chick-fil-A. OARC was instrumental in working with the previous mall owners on convincing them to develop more pad sites.

“OARC successfully completed a $2.4 million streetscape of Ogontz Avenue that included pedestrian crosswalks, benches, pedestrian lighting, bike racks etc. The abandoned gas station at Stenton and Haines is now a Rocco’s Water Ice and the vacant homes across the street have been renovated and sold.”

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