Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Episode 10: Princeton Renaissance Project

For episode 10 of the podcast, I sit down with Lori McKinney, one of the driving forces behind the Princeton Renaissance Project. The goal of this project is to revitalize the downtown Princeton area and Mercer Street. For years, that area has been overrun with what we referred to in the podcast as "shady activity," but it could also be known as drugs and prostitutes.

We had a nice chat about a number of topics. Some highlights are below. 

How Princeton Renaissance Project came about:

Lori: I'd been doing a lot of community development work and Greg Puckett from Community Connections had always been very supportive of us and our work over the years, from letting us borrow projectors to helping us out with funding and organizing workshops for us to speak at.

Lori: The timing was just perfect. I ended up teaming up with him and the Blueprint Communities Program brought together the new city manager and the mayor of Princeton and the chamber of commerce and all these wonderful partners that we'd always sort of collaborated with but never really sat down at the table to design a plan and work on it together. That's how the Princeton Renaissance Project was born. 

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Chris: I don't want to get off to a negative start here, but we do need to talk about the Why. Why we needed a Princeton Renaissance Project. Spoiler alert: there is a happy ending at the end of it all. Mercer Street had kind of a negative connotation, at least to long-term residents. Why exactly was that and what were some of the problems? 

Lori: It was stigmatized. It was pretty much abandoned when the malls came about. It's not unique to our area. It happens all over the country; all over the world, really. The downtown just, pretty much, it was like a vacuum when the malls came about. So, there were tons of abandoned store fronts and the negative, sort of shady activity pretty much took over. 

Lori: Princeton used to be booming. Like, this was boom town. There was elbow-to-elbow traffic and people remember a time when this was the place to be. It was just absolutely poppin' down here. So, people have really nostalgic memories. 

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Murals and paintings on the walls of Mercer Street:

Lori: For years and years, all of us artists have wanted to paint the town. We've wanted to do murals for a really long time ... It took a really long time; it was like a wild goose chase. We had to run around town and ask 10,000 questions. Every time we thought it was going to be the end of the line, there was just another door that opened that we had to walk through. All these papers, and all these zoning hearings and permission slips and liability forms and blah blah blah. It took about a year and a half to get all the paperwork. 

Chris: The one that Patch Whiskey did, that's the one with the big purple and green designs, right? 

Lori: It's his signature style. His monsters are called 'Winkles.' And it's extremely vibrant. The two walls, they line the lot where the building was demolished; it was burnt and then torn down. On that lot, there's going to be a community garden that goes up this Spring. 

Chris: For those who don't know, that eyesore was, I believe, a gun store. There was that big zoning thing about "Are we gonna get rid of it?" and then it burnt down. I think that was the one where somebody was murdered back behind there. 

Lori: Yeah, it was really really shady. And, honestly, when it caught on fire my first reaction was like, "That is exactly what needed to happen." The energy just needed to burn away. It was a very dark and sad story. A woman, just totally lost. That woman represented so many people that you see. Not just on Mercer Street, on Quail Valley and Thorn. Everywhere, it's not specific just to Mercer Street. Unfortunately, it's the one that gets talked about the most.  

Chris: I like, too, that they kind of kept up some of the wreckage - the brick walls that are kind of torn down - so you can kind of see what was there.

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We talk about all that and more:

- Who is involved in the Renaissance Project and how it all came together. 

- Renovation to the theater on Mercer Street and the ultimate goal with that. 

- That "Christmas Tree Miracle" movie that everybody was talking about on Facebook for a little bit is brought up. 

- How the New Years Eve ball drop celebration came about.

- Short term goals for the next few months.

- Long term goals for the Princeton Renaissance Project.

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For more information, check out:

Princeton Renaissance Project website

Princeton Renaissance Project facebook

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