Heard the One About Jamestown? State Bets Comedy Can Spark a Revival

| New York Times

JAMESTOWN, N.Y. — This is not really a funny place.

Perched in the westernmost county in New York, within heckling distance of Ohio, Jamestown has been leaking population for years as many of its furniture factories flopped and textile mills tanked. With a median household income around $31,000 and the poverty level hovering at 29 percent, the city’s major claim to fame comes from someone who grew up here, left, and never really looked back: Lucille Ball, the comic doyenne who knew a joke when she saw one.

For the last couple of decades, Jamestown has scraped out a modest tourist trade off of Lucy’s legacy, with a nostalgic museum and an annual comedy festival in her name and honor that temporarily turns the small city — about 30,000 people — into a big deal, drawing comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Lewis Black. But just as quickly as the laughter fades, so do the crowds.

Now, in a multimillion-dollar gamble that will test the power of giggles versus geography, the State of New York has invested nearly $10 million in the hopes that it can turn Jamestown — which has no comedy clubs, no velvet ropes and no two-drink minimum — into an A-list tourist destination and a prime example of civic pluck triumphing over chronic malaise.

The draw? A $50 million museum and yuk-yuk Hall of Fame known as the National Comedy Center, featuring an array of artifacts and high-tech exhibits, including — no kidding — holograms of comedians, both dead and alive.

“I believe this is going to be a national attraction,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said during a stop here in early August to announce a promotional packagefor the center, predicting scores of jobs and millions of dollars for the local economy. “You are already hitting it out of the park.”

That may be a wee exaggeration at this point: With opening night still almost a year away, the comedy center has thus far been all setup, no payoff. Ground was first broken here, next to a rehabilitated railroad station along the Chadakoin River, in August 2015. At that point, the state — through the Empire State Development Corporation, its development arm — had already invested $1.5 million in the center.

In December 2015, New York announced more than $2 million in funding. In 2016, the state granted $834,000 to the center, including money for a hologram projection system. Finally, in January, the grand finale: a $5 million grant, announced by Mr. Cuomo during his State of the State address to close the gap in funding for the project.

That money was part of the Buffalo Billion, the governor’s signature upstate economic development project, which has drawn critics and the attention of federal investigators; last fall, the United States attorney in Manhattan announced federal corruption charges against nine individuals associated with various projects around the state, including Mr. Cuomo’s longtime political enforcer, Joseph Percoco, who is to face trial in January. That scrutiny has not fazed Mr. Cuomo, who has doubled down on the Buffalo project, putting an additional $500 million toward its second phase.

Likewise, the comedy center’s backers are bullish about its chances, both as an economic spark and a way to honor the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and, yes, Lucy.

“The driving force behind the National Comedy Center is that comedy, as an art form, deserves it,” said Journey Gunderson, the center’s executive director. “But for the residents of western New York and the people who live, work and play here, it offers hope of a revitalized community.”

In order to succeed, however, the center will have to overcome its proximity to, well, nowhere. The nearest large city is Buffalo, some 75 minutes to the north by car. Cleveland is two hours to the west. Pittsburgh, to the south, is a little farther than that. And New York City? A little more than six hours by car, or about five days by foot.

Still, Ms. Gunderson and others cite the sheer population density in the Northeast — some 150 million people living within 500 miles, including cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Toronto — as well as the summertime appeal of other nearby institutions like the Chautauqua Institution, the venerable intellectual and artistic retreat, just 20 miles to the west. And though Jamestown may be remote, Ms. Gunderson noted that so was Cooperstown, the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a bona fide tourism hit.

All told, Ms. Gunderson said that the center will need to attract 114,000 people a year, paying $18 to $20 admission, to break even; the current Lucy museum, a modest and somewhat musty institution, draws about 20,000.

And the center will not focus on only one comedian: The plans are much more ambitious, including 37,000 square feet of interactive exhibits devoted to everything from late-night comedy to comedy as a means for social activism. Visitors will be given an electronic survey at the front door and be outfitted with devices that will tailor the experience of the museum to their individual comedic tastes, whether that be sitcoms, stand-up or sketch. There will be touch screens, a cash bar, and a so-called Blue Room — where exhibits will feature naughty and off-color comedy — as well as a virtual writers’ room where visitors can pitch ideas, and, of course, have them shot down by virtual television executives.

Howard Zemsky, the chief executive of Empire State Development, said he had been impressed with both the local enthusiasm and the way the project aligned with a number of the state’s redevelopment philosophies, including historic preservation, reuse of old buildings and urban revitalization. Indeed, last year, the state gave an additional $10 million to Jamestown to “create a truly inclusive, year-round downtown.” (Mr. Zemsky, whose dry delivery has been known to enliven even the most boring of functions, quipped: “I figure if we give enough support, they’ll let me perform.”)

Jamestown’s downtown currently is a mix of upstate surprises — the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts, a handsome theater where some of the comedy festival acts perform — and more familiar sights, including empty storefronts and underused buildings. There’s a small arena, a smattering of bars and restaurants, and exceedingly niche tourism stops, like the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.

Still, Mr. Zemsky said he wasn’t worried about the location. “If you’re on vacation, a 75-minute drive through upstate New York is a pleasant experience,” he said, noting the success of other western New York attractions like Niagara Falls and the Corning Museum of Glass. “I wouldn’t be too concerned with people finding this place.”

E.J. McMahon, the founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative watchdog group, is not convinced. Mr. McMahon cited several other state-backed museum-style projects over the years which had raised eyebrows, like the National Hall of Fame of Soccer in Oneonta, which closed in 2010, and the Museum of Cheese in Rome, N.Y., which seems to have stopped fermenting several years ago. (Not to despair, cheese fans: The Cuba Cheese Museum in Cuba, N.Y., appears to still be in business.)

“There’s all sorts of studies showing that they are not moneymakers and do not return the government investment,” Mr. McMahon said, likening such outlays of state funds to cities building stadiums or convention centers. He conceded that the comedy center would likely “look nice, and have a gala opening,” complete with celebrities and the governor. “But it’s still unlikely to be something that turns around Jamestown,” he added.

City leaders beg to differ, saying that the impact on the city has already been felt, including the renovation of the train station and the opening of a new riverfront park. More than 200 construction jobs have been created — work on the site began in earnest last year — with some $17.5 million in wages generated.

Like all good comedy, the history of the center is dappled with tragedy. Sam Teresi, the mayor of Jamestown, said the idea of big-time comedy in Jamestown dates back to the late 1980s, when city leaders tried to reconcile with Ms. Ball, who had left Jamestown three decades before. According to Mr. Teresi, the comedian had hoped to start a festival devoted to new comedy. But Ms. Ball died in 1989 just weeks before that project was to be announced.

With the blessing of Lucie Arnaz, daughter of Ms. Ball and Desi Arnaz, the festival and the museum did take root, but plans for the comedy center — hatched in the mid-1990s — were shelved until 2010, when a new group of comedy aficionados, including Ms. Gunderson and Tom Benson, the center’s chairman, began to develop new plans. In 2014, the state began to kick in its support; money also came from western New York groups like the Gebbie Foundation; the John R. Oishei Foundation; and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, named for the owner of the Buffalo Bills.

Mr. Teresi said that his city was actually the perfect location for a comedy Hall of Fame. “Anthropologists have determined that the first human laugh occurred on these coordinates,” he joked.

And then, the mayor got serious.

“The opportunity is here because the mother and queen of modern comedy took her first breaths here,” Mr. Teresi said. “She’s here in spirit, she was here in birth, she was here growing up. She’s part of Jamestown and Jamestown is part of her. So what better place to have a tribute to comedy?”

© 2017 New York Times