To plan for its future, New Rochelle can look to its past. In the city once home to the studio that created the animated Mighty Mouse in the mid-20th century, economic development officials will again turn to artists and creators to bring jobs to a growing city.
From the early 1930s through the 70s, New Rochelle was home to Terrytoons, an animation studio launched by Paul Terry that included the characters Mighty Mouse, Tom Terrific and Heckle and Jeckle. While Terry was known to refer to his studio as the Woolworth’s to Disney’s Tiffany, the Terrytoons location in downtown New Rochelle put the city on the map as a place for artists and illustrators in New York City to find work.
“It was really easy for New Rochelle, because they had this huge talent pool in New York,” said Amelia Winger-Bearskin, director of the newly formed nonprofit IDEA New Rochelle. The city had the advantage of a quick train ride into and out of Manhattan to attract talent to jobs in the relatively new field of animation.
“People started moving up to New Rochelle and living here, having their full-time work at Terrytoons, all while they were still able to be connected to artists and the intellectual community of New York City,” Winger-Bearskin said.
In her new job, she will lead a nonprofit attempting to take the same forces that grew an animation industry in New Rochelle and apply them to the rapidly growing immersive technology fields, including virtual and augmented reality.
“Animation is a perfect metaphor for what virtual reality is right now,” she said. “It’s this new technology somewhere between art, entertainment and science. It has all these applications in all these different fields. And the first ones there are a lot of artists and entrepreneurs. These are the first people to say ‘Let’s try this out.’ And New Rochelle is a perfect place for them to start experimenting.”
An award-winning artist and graduate of New York University’s Interactive Technology Program, Winger-Bearskin will lead IDEA New Rochelle as it works with the city and its downtown business improvement district (BID) to launch a range of programming, studio and workspaces over the next several years aimed at creating a home for the fields of virtual and augmented reality, motion capture and molecular gastronomy.
Virtual and augmented realities are most associated with gaming and entertainment. The popular Pokemon Go! phone application is considered augmented reality, for example, while the Oculus Rift headsets represent virtual reality.
But with investments coming from every major technology company, virtual and augmented reality are expected to be rapidly growing industries with a range of applications in art, entertainment, medicine
While the field has created a great deal of entrepreneurial energy, Winger-Bearskin said it’s difficult for recent graduates to find the equipment and space they need to work.
New Rochelle’s vision is to step in and offer that space with easy access to Manhattan and at a fraction of the cost. Those factors make New Rochelle “a perfect playground for a new industry, like it was once for animation and is now for virtual reality,” she said.
“We really have a niche and an opportunity to create these facilities for exactly the kind of people that exist in New York,” she said. “Which are the innovators, people working in marketing, advertising and publishing to allow them to use our facilities here.”
IDEA, which stands for Interactive Digital Environments Alliance, will run much of the programming for the arts and technology district that the city and its downtown BID are working to launch.
As the city competes with municipalities in metropolitan New York for millennials and other professionals, New Rochelle BID Executive Director Ralph DiBart said it’s important that the city find an industry to set it apart.
“The city is looking for uses that will create a definable niche,” DiBart said, “that have the ability to bring together the existing community, but also attract new people and have an economic foundation.”
Bringing together city resources and private developers, IDEA is already set to open two downtown studio and maker spaces in 2018. The first is a 12,000-square-foot space at the New Roc City retail and entertainment complex, while the other is a 5,000-square-foot space at 542 Main St. The second studio will be built in space that was formerly home to the New Rochelle Trust Co., where artist Norman Rockwell once did his banking.
The studio space will be donated to the nonprofit by each building owner for at least five years, after which IDEA New Rochelle expects to enter into below-market long-term leases, DiBart said.
The studios will each include a virtual reality production studio, motion capture studio and molecular gastronomy lab. Each will also serve the clients of a nonprofit incubator that IDEA New Rochelle is establishing for early stage startups in the immersive technology field.
In 2019, RXR Realty is expected to finish a 28-story retail and residential tower at 587 Main St. That project includes a 10,000-square-foot black box theater at the site of the city’s former Loew’s Theatre, which will be another home for IDEA programming. While the theater will host traditional productions, the stage will also be equipped for motion capture work and virtual reality experiences Winger-Bearskin said it will be the first black box theater to offer
DiBart said developers and landlords in the city have shown a willingness to work with the nonprofit because its initiatives represent “an opportunity for downtown to really generate traffic, new businesses and create economic development.”
Later this fall, IDEA New Rochelle expects to begin a residency program for artists in the immersive technology field. The program will offer artists communal living space in a three-bedroom apartment, set up for co-working options that include virtual reality equipment. The program will be in a renovated 3,000-square-foot space owned by the city above the New Rochelle train station.
Future plans also call for an interactive immersive technologies museum in downtown New Rochelle. In collaboration with IDEA New Rochelle, the global creative services agency Squint Opera plans to offer an interactive development application next year that will allow for collaborative planning of the museum’s design.
READY TO GROW
IDEA New Rochelle matches up both an industry and a city that are in the early stages of what is expected to be rapid growth.
The augmented and virtual reality industries are expected to grow to be worth about $10 billion this year, according to research from virtual reality advisory firm Digi-Capital. That value is expected to rise to $108 billion by 2021.
Winger-Bearskin said the technology will have a wide variety of applications. Advertising, education and health care have all started to embrace immersive technologies.
“Any industry where tech has permeated, that’s where virtual reality is,” Winger-Bearskin said
Meanwhile, construction in New Rochelle over the next several years is expected to add 3-million square feet of office and retail space and 5,500 apartments, part of a
plan adopted by the city from master developer RDRXR at New Rochelle LLC, a joint venture of RXR Realty and Renaissance Downtowns.
In the middle of that growth, New Rochelle economic development officials want to also try to attract new sources of industry. The city’s economy right now is driven largely by three colleges and Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital, its largest employer.
“That’s fantastic,” said Luiz Aragon, New Rochelle’s commissioner of development. “But then what is our industry beyond that? We have a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but not enough of anything to really put us on the map. That’s when we started to take a step back and really started looking at technology as a gateway to our future.”
“We’re in a good location, but we’re still a small city,” DiBart said. “We have no foundation of any industry. So we had to find an economic sector which was beginning to really take off. So there was room to get in on the ground floor and grow with it. That’s one of the reasons we have identified immersive technologies, which is still in its infancy.”
Officials the last several months have focused on setting the foundation for that future. In August, the BID and IDEA New Rochelle hosted a summit on immersive technologies that featured discussions and demonstrations from top minds in the field. The two organizations are also working with artist Marco Castro Cosio, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MediaLab, to redesign a donated U-Haul van as a mobile virtual reality venue.
IDEA and the BID have also formed partnerships with New York University, Monroe College, the Community Preservation Corp. and the New Museum in Manhattan, where the nonprofit has joined the museum’s New Inc cultural incubator.
“We’re in the phase now of incubating the plan by making all these partnerships and networks, getting the name out,” DiBart said. “And people are beginning to really talk about what we are doing, which makes it easier as we create these spaces to get