On Saturday evening, August 7, you might have been one of the folks enjoying the gospel music concert sponsored by the West Windsor Arts Council at the outdoor pavilion at the massive Nassau Park Shopping Center on busy Route 1 — an unexpected venue for a music concert but a welcome change of pace, I am sure, for many weary shoppers.
Or — even more improbably — you might have been in a canoe or a kayak or a motorboat in front of the O’Neils’ cottage on Wrighter Lake in northeastern Pennsylvania, enjoying a “sunset concert” with a flutist, violinist, and cellist performing on the dock looking out on the lake where my family has had a cottage for almost 50 years.
Either way, you might have pinched yourself, looked at the bright blue skies up above, and said, “Wow, it doesn’t get much better than this!”
At Wrighter Lake, where I was ending a one-week sojourn away from bustling Route 1, the sunset concert was the brainstorm of Joan and Roger O’Neil, an American couple now living in England but still maintaining their small summer cottage on the lake near where Roger grew up. They had guessed that — with weather cooperating — the calm lake surface in the early evening would turn their dock into a stage looking out on vast auditorium. And they wanted to encourage the arts community in this slightly out of the way corner of the world. On top of that, I suspect, they may have wanted to substitute — for an hour or so — the roar of motorboats and jet skis with the strains of the strings and flute.
The weather cooperated. On a perfectly still evening the motorboats retreated and a flotilla of 20 or 30 small boats gathered in front of the O’Neils’ dock. Another 20 or 30 people gathered on the lawn of the cottage.
Midway through the concert, somewhere between “Belle of the Ball” and “Blue Tango,” pieces by Leroy Anderson, another guest arrived: a three-foot tall blue heron glided over the still water and up to the shore. It poked along the shoreline, obviously looking for an evening snack, and casually climbed up onto the dock and over to the other side. The trio played on. Shortly after the second Anderson piece someone in the audience yelled out, “The blue heron likes the Blue Tango.” The heron mosied on and eventually took flight, its four or five-foot wing span quietly propelling itself to the other side of the lake. An unexpected guest at this unusual event.
Up on Wrighter Lake the value of a cottage may or may not have gone up a little after that concert, but the value of just being there certainly increased. Who would argue with that?
Well, some folks down in West Windsor might argue the point. The volunteer West Windsor Arts Council has made a name for itself in the last half dozen years by sponsoring scores of events in public and semi-public places such as the Nassau Park Pavilion, the train station parking lot that houses the popular farmers’ market on Saturday mornings, and even a mailing company’s warehouse space on Alexander Road.
Now it is on the verge of taking occupancy of its own home, in the old Princeton Junction Fire House on Alexander Road. The 1931 building gave way to a new firehouse years ago, and the township decided that a modest renovation — costing about $1 million with the Arts Council raising $300,000 and the township chipping in $800,000 — would help jumpstart the Arts Council’s second phase.
But not everyone is happy. Recent articles detailing the terms of the Arts Council’s sweetheart lease — from $250 a month initially increasing gradually to $845 a month — have drawn the ire of some township taxpayers.
The comments section at the community newspaper’s website, wwpinfo.com, have included various rants: “If the arts people are so passionate about their work, raise your own funds but don’t put the burden on us. Our taxes are high enough without ongoing money going toward your work. West Windsor is too small to support every interest group. Other groups will whine just like you and want this, that, and the other. Taxes just continue to soar and you all keep nagging for more.”
One post referred to the new facility, which has not yet even opened its doors, as the “failed arts center.” The rationale: “People spending our tax money are completely clueless about business. The arts council will be struggling for years without making a dime of profit. Yet millions of taxpayer money will be used to support the 13 people in this town who want to keep the doors open. When this arts center fails they will be amazed of how it could have happened.
“Everyone do the town and yourself all a favor. Don’t put anymore money into this bad idea. Energy and resources will fizzle over a few years. More wasted money you may as well just burn.”
I know some of the people posting these objections, and — having just received my new and astronomically greater property tax bill in Princeton Borough — can feel their pain. No, government cannot provide all things to all people. But it can give a boost to an endeavor that has already demonstrated a high level of grassroots support.
See for yourself. The West Windsor Arts Council sponsors another concert in its Nassau Park music series on Saturday, August 21, at 6 p.m. with the Jazz Lobsters. (It will be inside at Panera Bread if it rains, and a reception at BoConcept will follow the concert.)
And on Saturday, September 25, the Arts Council finally moves into its new home on Alexander Road with a block party featuring an art exhibit, strolling musicians, a ribbon dance, a drum circle, hands on art activities, tours of the building, and sample workshops.
Will the taxpayer investment, as minimal as it has been, pay off? I’ve got a blue heron up on Wrighter Lake that says yes.