How Oil City Turned Its Town Around

In 2005, the denizens of Oil City, Pennsylvania, decided to turn their hometown into an artist-friendly community. Looking for ways to revitalize downtown, the City Council of Oil City brought in consultants from a downtown development firm, Shepstone Management Company, to give them feedback and generate new ideas. Shepstone made 10 recommendations — the foremost being the development of an arts community. The city council held a series of community meetings soon after, which led to the development of an arts revitalization committee and a plan of action. Upon hiring Joann Wheeler as director, the Arts Revitalization and Artist Relocation Program began officially in July 2006. For three years, Wheeler and the Oil City Arts Council have been actively encouraging artists to make the move to Oil City.

Great Location and Affordable Housing

Thanks to low-cost housing and the beauty of the surrounding area, artists were starting to find Oil City on their own, even before the program began advertising. Oil City is a convenient distance from many major cities and art markets. It’s an easy drive to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and Toronto. Washington D. C. is about a five-hour drive and the New York -Boston area is just a six-hour drive away. Artists and people with new business ideas can locate here and use this access to larger metropolitan areas to sell their products. The Arts Revitalization and Artist Relocation Program plans to expand their advertising to these metropolitan areas, which will continue to showcase Oil City as an attractive destination for people wanting low costs for starting new businesses and art studios.

Inexpensive housing is another boon for artists who move to Oil City. It’s easy to find a spacious apartment for around $400 and for under $50,000, you can get a very nice home. Oil City has even changed zoning laws to accommodate live-work-gallery space in their gracious Victorian homes. There are artist relocation incentives, including 100 percent financing package up to $150,000 on live-work space (when using First National Bank). This includes rehab costs, and mortgage insurance is waived. Through Venango County Affordable Housing, relocating artists may qualify for $7,500 toward down payment and closing costs on a residence. There are also opportunities for facade grants and loans, tax abatements for commercial properties and tax breaks for certain properties in the Historic District. Since its inception, 18 artist households have moved to Oil City as a direct result of the arts revitalization program.

Artist Studios and Gallery Space Available

Oil City was once at the epicenter of the oil industry and companies, such as Standard Oil, Quaker State and Pennzoil, built buildings here. One example is the National Transit Building, once the headquarters of the National Transit Company, a subsidiary of Standard Oil. Built in 1890, the building faced the Oil Exchange across the street at the time.

“The National Transit Building has historic preservation status,” states Wheeler. “It was built with oil money so it’s very opulent with big vaults on every floor to stash the Rockefeller money.”

Today, “The Transit” has been renovated. It is located in the heart of the arts district, where it is at the core of Oil City’s art initiatives. Although the Transit is referred to as a single structure, it is actually comprised of two buildings. There are four floors in the first building and five floors in the second one. The Transit houses artists and art organizations, such as the Oil Valley Center for the Arts and the Transit Fine Arts Gallery, that take up the basement, first floor and second floor of the main building as well as the second floor of the adjacent building. It is here that one can find the Transit Fine Arts Gallery, run by volunteers and showcasing artwork by regional artists, books by area authors and the recordings of local musicians. More than 100 artists exhibit and sell work in the gallery, and nearly all are from Pennsylvania. A new yoga studio has also opened with much success. Gary Marzolf, who runs the studio, was recently certified at Kripalu.

“I want to bring the art of yoga into this community and so far I’ve had a lot of interest,” says Marzolf.

As a part of the Arts Revitalization and Artist Relocation Program, the Oil City Arts Council transformed the second floor of the Transit’s adjacent building into the National Transit Art Studios. Twenty-six artists — painters, photographers, jewelers, glass artists and musicians — are currently renting space. Art studios in the National Transit Building rent for $0.49/square foot/month, utilities included and range in size and style. Some have the old woodwork and amazing views and can be made into elegant salon-type studios. The studios are opened to the public every second Saturday of the month.

Linda Lineman, who works with porcelain, collage and artist’s trading cards, was the first artist to move into the Transit Building in 2007. She has a studio that overlooks both Victorian Park and the river.

“The artists coming into Oil City is tremendous,” says Linda. “The response to the arts program has been terrific. We’re now talking about expanding the studios.”

In fact, the initiative to create a “studio-business incubator” for artists in the Transit Building has been so successful that there are currently only four studios left. There is talk of creating another 30 studios on the fourth floor of the adjacent building. Currently, there are plans to develop a cooperative gallery, which will be filled with the artwork of and staffed by the artists who have studios there.

Photographer Holly Jarzenski-Berlin moved into her studio in 2008. Like Lineman, Jarzenski-Berlin spends a great deal of time volunteering with the arts program.

“We now have a lot of classes here teaching everything from jewelry, metal arts, porcelain, feather painting, photography, and tin decorating,” says Holly. “It’s the volunteers who have made this what it is.”

Active Cultural Calendar

As a part of its arts revitalization efforts, the Oil City Arts Council has expanded the number of cultural events held annually in the town. Along with the arts programs, the arts council schedules free concerts in Justus Park during the summer as well as the very successful Oil Region Indie Music and Arts festival. Other festivals have been added to the events rosters in recent years held during the years, including a digital film festival, a bluegrass festival, a car show and a crafts fair held on Seneca Street. The local theater company has plans to restore an old theater in the arts district and open their playhouse there. Furthermore, the Venango Campus of Clarion University has a series of free cultural events: African drum and dance, a lecture on green technology, transgender singer Namoli Brennet, classical music, an independent film series, etc. So it’s fair to say that Oil City has put a lot of effort into making it known as an arts community.

“Since we started (the program) in 2006, we’ve added a number of new events,” explains Wheeler. “ (For example), we have a series of daytime concerts every day at lunchtime in Pipeline Alley — a very attractive spot in the center of downtown. They’re free concerts. People come and bring their lunches. These are things that have developed over the last three years.”

Professional Development Opportunities

Currently, artists work or sell in a variety of venues: at art shows or conferences, through galleries and on the Internet through an Etsy shop or eBay store.

“The more ways an artist can market and the wider the audience, the better. Oil City offers a relaxed lifestyle and a low cost of living, but artists have to establish markets outside their hometown to succeed,” states Wheeler.

To help relocated artists and arts-related businesses get off to a good start, the arts program is working to provide business support in the marketing of art, small business principles and e-marketing. Wheeler, as part of a group effort, is putting together a professional development initiative called the Hub: Arts on Route. Partner involved the initiative include the Oil Regional Alliance, the art councils and the chambers of commerce in Oil City, Franklin and Titusville. The arts program has also been collaborating with the Northside Business Association.

There are still problems to overcome. The main street in the art’s district area needs to be cleaned up, and several of the buildings and shops are still empty in the district. But designation as part of the Main Street Program could be on the way to help with that, and as new businesses check out the inexpensive housing and building costs it will bring new capital to the town. There is plenty of space for galleries for someone looking to open one.

A Changing Community

If you are looking to save on living expenses and still hang out with like-minded, creative people, Oil City might be for you. This small town has sprouted a fantastic new arts community. The Arts Revitalization and Artist Relocation Program is doing its best to bring all the elements together.

“The arts were already a strong presence (in Oil City),” says Wheeler. “My component of all of this was to bring artists into the area and integrate them into what was going on — encourage them to develop more of what made them happy, basically.”

Mayor Sonya Hawkins and an enlightened city council contributed, along with funding for the arts, a positive and open-minded outlook for Oil City.

“What we have to offer here is a quality of life with our bike trails, forests, rivers, lakes and parks. The air is clean and we live in a safe and beautiful environment. All of this will attract new companies to the area, and when they get here they will also find a thriving arts community,” explains Hawkins.

Recently, Wheeler did an economic impact study and presented it to the City Council of Oil City. “The city has invested about $85,000 to date. That’s cumulative over the three-year period. The return on investment, just in real estate sales and in rentals, has been close to a million dollars. Once you put it in numbers, people suddenly get it. There’s a certain amount of skepticism in the business community as to how this could possibly have any kind of positive impact. But it has.”

As more and more people move to the community, the future for art, new businesses and green technologies looks bright for Oil City.

“We are now at a critical moment with this arts program,” says Wheeler. “Now we‘re ready to take it to the next level.”AC

For more information about the Arts Revitalization and Artist Relocation Program, visit or contact Joann Wheeler, [email protected] or 814-676-5303.

For more information about cities and towns with programs and initiatives to attract artist residents, see 27 Towns for Working Artists in the January 2009 issue of Art Calendar.

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