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Toon Town: Center for Cartoon Studies to open in White River Junction

Somewhere in the back of the former Colodny Surprise building, a circular saw screeches as its blade digs into a piece of metal. Elsewhere, an irregular tattoo of hammers provides a backbeat to the dusty din of construction. Interior walls are rising. Light is flowing in the windows. The Center for Cartoon Studies is coming to life in White River Junction.

Ever since the automobile supplanted the railroad as transportation’s top dog, White River Junction has been struggling to maintain its downtown area. Like other Vermont village centers that grew up beside the Connecticut River, White River Junction’s fortunes have languished while its cross-river cousin, Lebanon, New Hampshire, snagged all the big box retail business destined for the Upper Valley because of the Granite State’s no sales tax status.

In the past two decades, White River Junction has languished. Its buildings grew frowsy, many of them became vacant, and it seemed that no matter how hard the town of Hartford tried, the old railroad village was a permanent candidate for life support.

But in an unexpected twist of fate, White River’s problems have now become its promise.
Kim Souza, who opened a trendy vintage clothing store called Revolution in White River nearly three years ago, calls the downtown “the last great place to do business in the Upper Valley.”

Its late-19th- and early-20th century architecture is attracting a lot of attention from folks in the “creative economy” and the village is becoming something of a mecca for artists of all stripes. The formerly dank Tip Top Bakery is now a vibrant center for artists and creative businesses. A professional theater company performs well-reviewed productions in an opera house that once served as dorm space for troops going overseas in World War II. In addition to Revolution, there’s a costume design shop (Fancy Felix), a store with hand-painted lampshades (Lampscapes), a one-of-a-kind food co-op, and a bakery with great bagels. The old fire station is being renovated for apartments and a funky museum. The severely dilapidated warehouses closest to the railroad tracks have made way for attractive new office buildings. And in September, a man with a vision enhanced by pen and ink will open a new art school in White River Junction.

How the Center for Cartoon Studies ended up in a former department store in one of Vermont’s oldest downtowns is a story of karma colliding with serendipity. For fans of the graphic novel, James Sturm is a familiar name. In 2001, he published The Golem’s Mighty Swing, an account of a 1920s baseball team made up of Jewish players on a barnstorming tour of the U.S. Since its publication, Sturm’s book has been translated into several languages and was chosen as Time magazine’s graphic novel of the year. Just last month, Hyperion Books (a division of Disney) agreed to team up with Sturm and the Center for Cartoon Studies to produce a series of graphic biographies for young readers.

In addition to drawing and writing his own books, Sturm has also taught cartooning within the framework of traditional art schools. But he’s long felt that there should be a way for serious students of the graphic novel to get training in their profession, much the same way that writers work on their craft while earning a master’s of fine arts.

He’d been carrying that vision around in his head for a couple of years when he and his wife moved to Hartland, Vermont. Eventually, the couple met Democrat Matt Dunne, one of Windsor County’s state senators, who also lives in Hartland. A few years hence, when the Center for Cartoon Studies celebrates its tenth anniversary, the meeting of Sturm and Dunne will be seen as the pivotal event in the school’s founding.

“James told me about his school idea and that he was planning to start it in Minnesota,” Dunne said in a recent interview. “And I asked, ‘Why not do it here in Vermont?’”

Why not, indeed? Years earlier, Dunne and others explored the possibility of bringing a movie theater back into White River Junction. The idea faded away but not before Dunne discovered the Colodny Surprise building. The former department store is owned by the Vermont State Housing Authority, which maintains nine rental units on its second story for tenants with low incomes or disabilities. But the main part of the building, the wide open street floor and full basement, has been mostly vacant since it closed in the early 1980s.

“When James toured the building, he asked Matt if the state would be willing to help with funding to get the school off the ground,” Michelle Ollie said. She’s the managing director of the Center for Cartoon Studies. Sturm recruited her from her marketing position at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “The state doesn’t provide funding for private enterprise, but it was willing to give us a grant [$30,000] to improve a building it already owned.”

That grant, which Dunne said was helped along by another Windsor County state senator, John Campbell, did double duty. According to Ollie, its bulk was used to remove the asbestos flooring on the building’s main floor, an improvement to safety, health, and aesthetics — there was a nice hardwood floor underneath.

But maybe even more importantly, the state funding gave Sturm’s idea an immediate visibility and credence that made other fundraising possible. In addition, Dunne introduced Sturm to the folks at the Vermont Arts Council who agreed to act as the fiscal agent for the grant. The networking connections didn’t hurt, either.

The center is currently in the midst of a $600,000 capital fundraising campaign. Approximately half of that amount has been raised, sometimes with some very surprising donations. For example, Ollie was in White River Junction one night in January when a fire leveled a building in the downtown area. When firefighters blocked off some of the streets, Ollie offered a ride home to a stranded couple. A few days later, they sent a check to the center’s fundraising campaign. There have been lots of in-kind donations such as accounting, permitting, legal and architectural services as well as books from publishers that will fill the center’s library. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons televison show, donated an autographed cell from the show that was auctioned on eBay. Peter Laird, one of the co-creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, donated $150,000.

Local financial and government agents have also stepped up to the plate to make sure the school succeeds, Ollie explained. A consortium of four banks — Merchants, Mascoma Savings, Ledyard National, and Chittenden — plus the town of Hartford have agreed to back a two-year, $250,000 line of credit for the center. And Ollie reports that employees of the state department of education “couldn’t be nicer” as she and Sturm make their way through the accreditation process so that the center can confer an associate of fine arts degree and eventually a master’s of fine arts.

Which brings us to the students. So far, 16 of the first class of 20 students have been accepted for the premier semester that begins in September. When the school is in full swing, it will have 80 students. The average age of the incoming “freshman” is 24, students hail from all over the U.S. There’s even one coming from Europe. But as it turns out, these 20 won’t be the very first to settle into the desks or use the new Macs destined for the computer lab. Because construction at the Colodny is ahead of schedule and under budget, Sturm and Ollie decided to start off with a set of summer classes geared for younger students. Those will begin in June.

Longtime residents of White River Junction may be holding their collective breath as they watch the downtown work its way toward a new life as a center of Vermont’s creative economy, hoping that this time, the revival is for real. But Sturm and Ollie are breathing just fine. They’ve got a school to open.

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