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Art transforms vacant downtown storefronts

A closed-down shop in downtown Patchogue seeking out

A closed-down shop in downtown Patchogue seeking out renters decorates the display windows with paintings and drawings. (Aug. 14, 2012) Credit: Johnny Milano

In downtown Patchogue, just south of Montauk Highway, a smattering of paintings and sculptures sits on shelves in a window, transforming a vacant storefront into a temporary art gallery.

There, as elsewhere on Long Island, empty windows in downtown buildings are a constant reminder of the unstable economy. And more and more local governments are responding with initiatives to regulate -- and often decorate -- shuttered properties.

From laws governing the abandoned properties to collaborations with local artists, municipalities are using art to fill barren facades.

The Village of Bellport drew attention to the issue during a public meeting in June -- referring to guidelines in communities such as East Hampton Village that dictate how property owners must maintain their storefronts to avoid unsightly windows.

"Vacant storefronts have a tendency to depress economic activity of surrounding stores -- it starts to look deserted," said John Coraor, director of cultural affairs in the Town of Huntington.

Both Huntington and Patchogue Village are pairing store owners with local artists to fill windows and draw attention to both the art and the buildings for sale or rent. Coraor helped launch the public art program by appointing 21 artists, and the town board approved the public art plan this summer.

"It's important to have a strong arts community," said Beth Giacummo, president of the Patchogue Arts Council. "And it brings patronage to local businesses."

It's not just professional artists who are adding a splash of color to otherwise bare display areas on downtown streets. Shawn Cullinane, Lindenhurst village clerk and treasurer, said some of the area's property owners are using students' work in their windows.

He said about five commercial property owners have taken interest in the project so far, allowing the village to install panels of paintings -- including a rainbow of ice cream cones and sunflowers and a bulldog baring his teeth next to a prominent "For Rent" sign.

"It's been a basically positive project that has created at least a little bit more foot traffic downtown," Cullinane said.

While towns and villages have tapped community creativity to spruce up their windows, their officials also are looking to attract more businesses, and make sure existing enterprises aren't lost in the shuffle.

Earlier this year, East Hampton Village enacted a local law to govern the maintenance of the commercial district.

Property owners with vacant spaces have to have a display of merchandise or an installation in their window.

"We refer to it as the 'good neighbor policy,' " said Larry Cantwell, administrator at the Village of East Hampton.

"If you have a dozen stores with vacant windows, it creates an impression that functioning businesses are not open."

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