Hey Utica Leaders! Creative thinkers, mad geniuses and global disruptors wanted to rebuild the community
Communities across Upstate New York have experienced their share of highs and lows. From flickering economies, fluctuating social ties and inconsistent political competence, we can all point back to times in our lives we’d consider to be “the good old days.” So what if we as creative locals had the power to fight back and rebuild our neighborhoods and communities? The answer is – we do, we can and we have! To continue down this path Don Marinelli advises us to start with our natural resources, and he’s putting out the call to Mohawk Valley and Utica leaders to get involved.
Don Marinelli is known as an edutainment wizard and creative conjurer because he is a dynamic speaker, passionate about changing people’s perception of the future.
In a recent visit to Utica, he said the city reminded him of Pittsburgh in the 80s. Between the closed mills, vacant storefronts and grim conversations with some community members, Marinelli is setting out on a mission to motivate more Utica leaders to transform the community and achieve their dreams.
“I met a real jaded son of a gun when I visited Utica. He kept saying things like ‘yeah right, that won’t happen.’ Well I’ve been there before, and I’ve experienced first hand how communities can rebuild themselves with creative strategies. You just need to find the innovators and motivate them to achieve,” explained Marinelli.
Marinelli has been teaching for over three decades, but says his most tangible experience with community building is from the work he’s accomplished in the field. He’s most recognized for co-founding the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) with the late professor Randy Pausch.
ETC is a global master’s program for entertainment and educational technology research and development. It helped commercialize Carnegie Mellon’s academic success of using games for learning to serve the next generation workforce. As a premiere program for interactive entertainment, ETC attracts smart people from around the world who create meaningful projects for communities that educate, entertain, engage and inspire others.
“Randy and I were the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of incorporating technology in education in a way it that was fun, dynamic and ultimately copied,” said Marinelli. “Why do something for a teacher, when you can create something for a nonprofit, or even your local government? Our students took an ordinary puppet show and turned it into interactive experience for the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. Now it’s a two child experience that encourages interaction with the kids by finding someone else to puppeteer the game with.”
Since retiring from Carnegie Mellon, Marinelli has been named Associate Director of the Entertainment Technology Management degree program at Columbia University and is also a visiting professor in the Arts, Media and Engineering program at Arizona State University.
Marinelli is also “the wizard” behind various downtown Pittsburgh redevelopment initiatives, and a consultant on a variety of projects related to community advancement. Similar to the Mohawk Valley, Pittsburgh struggled to recover after its industrial base left the region. With Marinelli’s help, Pittsburgh has started experimenting with innovative redevelopment initiatives based on the intersection of art, technology and education. This creative thinking has catalyzed Pittsburgh to become one of the most vibrant metropolitan areas in the United States.
“Pittsburgh was a steel town. It has more bridges than any city outside of Venice. And there’s a saying if you can see where you want to go, there’s no way you can get there. This is because you need to take a tunnel or bridge, until the mayor started a movement to build bike paths. The initiative was so successful you can now rent a bike automatically from tons of docking stations and ride your way around the city, and there’s nothing more that my wife and I love to do. Why? Because it brings me back to my youth. When I was 13 my bike was my freedom.”
Instead of getting discouraged by the lack of outside help, Marinelli says innovative community leaders need to turn to their neighbors, and the local associations and institutions that lie at the heart of their community, to set forth a plan of asset-based development.
“When people are depressed they turn into narcissists. Sure I remember when my hair was black, or when I was thinner. But you have to look outward, and stop being a negative nancy,” laughed Marinelli.
This all sounded great to me, so I flat out asked him how we can achieve this in Upstate?
It was the magic question. As his voice quickened I was thankful to be recording the call because my little fingers could barely keep up trying to dictate his rapid response.
“It’s about thinking positively and thinking creatively. If you have an abandoned neighborhood, what you really have is low cost housing waiting to be renovated. If you have really bad housing waiting to be torn down, you have an opportunity for an urban garden that will liven up the community and provide purpose,” he gasped for a breathe. “Upstate New York has the Erie Canal. If it’s not being used for towing boats, it should be repurposed for tourism. The Mohawk River is amazing and can be used to promote biking, hiking and camping. I experienced the Herkimer waterfalls on my visit. What a spectacular throwaway. I stopped by a diner that was stuck in a different era. Get them on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” shouted Don (now out of breathe).
Giving him a moment to recoup from his whirlwind of inspirational brainstorming, I mentioned how it doesn’t surprise me that his creative conjuring efforts have been recognized by The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties.
Don returned to the Mohawk Valley to be part of The Foundation’s Speaker Series on March 10.
“The Mohawk Valley has always been rich with an appreciation for arts and culture, and now we are experiencing growth through economic development and new technology projects,” said Alicia Dicks, president and CEO of The Foundation. “We believe Don Marinelli will inspire our community to understand how these varying elements, when aligned, create greater outcomes than any could achieve individually.”
Marinelli addressed Utica leaders on Thursday at the Stanley Center for the Arts to help kickstart The Foundation’s Big Ideas conversation.
“The Foundation has announced a challenge as part of my talk in Utica,” shared Marinelli. “It involves support for bringing an innovative business concept to downtown. I love this! What if you were able to partner with an area college to create a nanotechnology store to show what nano will look like in 20 years?”
Big Ideas Start Here – Apply!
The Big Ideas Challenge was designed to impact opportunity change in the Mohawk Valley. In an effort to promote entrepreneurship in the region, the Challenge will serve as a pilot program for downtown economic development. Individuals and groups that have an innovative business concept are being challenged submit an innovative business concept for one of four Utica neighborhoods – Downtown, Bagg’s Square, Brewery District or Bleecker/East District. The winners will be eligible to receive up to $25,000 in funding to turn their big idea into a reality.
To be eligible for the competition, startup and early-stage businesses should include an innovative business concept unlike anything currently in downtown Utica. The use of both art and technology to should support or enhance the business idea. Entrepreneurs should also partner with people, organization or other businesses committed to revitalizing downtown Utica and provide commercial activity resulting in social return and financial impact for the region.
To help applicants throughout the Challenge, The Foundation has partnered with Mohawk Valley Community College’s thINCubator, an accelerator program that provides coaching and mentorship to aspiring entrepreneurs.
The deadline to apply is April 13, 2016. Winners will be announced on August 17. You can learn more about eligibility and awards here.
Be open to ideas others have that you would never be able to conjure, and be willing to be amazing!
Marinelli applauded the Utica leaders who have already taken charge of the Mohawk Valley’s revival, pointing to the new downtown lofts, thINCubator’s home for innovative new companies and their partnership with Mohawk Valley Community College and START-UP NY. “And don’t think I’m not coming back for a Utica Comets game,” laughed Marinelli. “What a brilliant way to turn the community’s attention away from lamenting.”
On that note, I’ll leave you with an awesome Utica Comets video, Pride of the People, and a hashtag I think we should all embrace, #ImWithFrank that shows some love for Utica leader Frank DuRoss, co-founder of the Comets.