An underutilized parking lot behind the Hotel Coolidge in downtown White River Junction will become a vibrant, pandemic-safe place to eat, visit, and watch films and projection art this summer, thanks to an $18,000 grant from The Vermont Community Foundation (VCF), the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD), and the Better Places partners.

The project also helps re-start the downtown’s First Friday celebrations, suspended due to the pandemic, with community arts projects and light and sound installations to re-animate the entire downtown and celebrate the arts community centered there.

The grant was obtained by a partnership centered on White River Indie Films (WRIF) and including the Town of Hartford, the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce, Vital Communities, CATV (Community Access Television), the Briggs Opera House, the Center for Cartoon Studies, and local businesses and film and media artists.

Light River Junction First Fridays with WRIF” aims to revitalize White River Junction’s “First Friday” celebrations, disrupted by COVID, by attracting people of all ages back to the village through film and media arts. From May to August, WRIF will transform downtown parking lots into an attractive forum for safe dining and cinema viewing. Film, including work by local filmmakers, will be projected in novel ways in spaces enhanced by local visual artists. The project is expected to revive social interaction and economic activity through the arts in reimagined and ongoing ways that can offer inspiration to other Vermont communities.

“The vision originated in WRIF’s experimental ‘Light River Junction Festival of Cinema Light,’ a weekend of outdoor projection in downtown White River Junction,” explained WRIF Board Member Samantha Davidson Green. “In December 2020, we shouted out to local filmmakers, who shared their work freely for the public to enjoy safely—whether by car or through snow on foot—projected on buildings and in shop windows. Its success revealed how much the community craves the shared experience of art and the potential for re-imagining cinema and media arts events to draw people back to our hurting downtown businesses. The Better Places grant enables WRIF to partner with an amazing team of local organizations and the Town of Hartford, many of whom pioneered the First Friday celebrations years ago, in our efforts to revitalize our local economy and heal our community fabric through the arts.”

The project’s main site is the parking area at 40-50 Currier Street, behind the Hotel Coolidge and Gates-Briggs building, which owns the lot and supports the project. The lot is bordered on several sides by white-sided buildings that will serve as projection surfaces for cinema and moving image installation art. In addition, a portable screen will be erected in one end of the lot for screening high-resolution feature film content after dark. The site is adjacent to the Wolf Tree Bar and in walking distance from a half-dozen restaurants, making it convenient for outdoor dining.

The project also involves a number of other aspects, including community art projects and smaller film and video projections and sound installations at spots throughout downtown, with changing content by local filmmakers and sound artists.

These activities will be part of White River Junction First Fridays, which are scheduled for May 7, June 4, July 2, and August 6.

The project’s organizers see its impact as three-fold:

  • Boosting the local economy by stimulating downtown shopping and dining;
  • Helping our recovery from the social isolation of COVID with programming that is welcoming to all and accessible by public transportation; and
  • Supporting the creative economy—which has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic shutdowns—by drawing people back to arts-rich White River Junction and showcasing works by local and emerging film and media artists, including participants in the Vermont- and New Hampshire-wide Freedom & Unity Young Filmmakers’ Contest and a CATV-sponsored Film Slam/festival.

The White River Junction project was one of only eight chosen from among 63 applications representing 54 communities across the state from Canaan to Pownal and Alburgh to Brattleboro. A total of $129,275 was awarded.

These grants will help communities reimagine and reopen public spaces for safe dining, shopping, and recreation, while showcasing the state’s unique sense of place. The community-driven projects ranged from village green and park improvements, to public art installations, alley activations, community arts centers, music and performing arts series, as well as other grassroots projects that bring people together safely in public spaces.

“Better Places grants are an important tool in our toolbox to help revitalize our communities as we recover from the pandemic,” said Governor Phil Scott. “I want to thank the Vermont Community Foundation, the National Life Foundation, the Vermont Arts Council, the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and the Vermont Department of Health for their work on this program as we support improvements in towns and villages across the state.”

“Public spaces can tell a story about our communities—they bring us together when accessible or leave us isolated when they aren’t,” says Vermont Community Foundation President and CEO Dan Smith. “The Community Foundation is committed to working with other state leaders to support projects that bring people together safely and contribute to the recovery and resilience of our economy, culture, and sense of connection.”

“First Fridays” started more than ten years ago through the collaboration of local businesses such as Revolution with the Center for Cartoon Studies, Main Street Museum, and others to celebrate downtown, becoming a community ritual gathering around the arts and local commerce.

With the exception of the past year, WRIF has presented an annual film festival and special screenings since its 2004 founding, in various downtown locations, at times in conjunction with First Fridays. WRIF and CATV have also partnered for film slams and screenings.