BY JORDAN OTERO
Fluffy white flakes drift slowly from the gray sky, settling peacefully on the slushy, cracked sidewalks and pothole-riddled streets. The serene blanket bundles the city, a temporary balm on the blemishes that often seem glaringly obvious without the snow — paint peeling and flaking from a nameless face on a mural; orange rust crawling up chain-link fences; empty shops staring from behind dingy windows.
Franciscan University of Steubenville has long been revered as a beacon on a hill in this city long past its post-World War II heyday. The days of a booming steel industry in Steubenville, Ohio are gone, replaced by dilapidated buildings, empty streets, homelessness and drug abuse. The downtown area, while full of historic charm, lacks the luster, hustle and bustle that many modern college towns offer. And in the wake of a national-level rape scandal, the name “Steubenville” often relays negative connotations in many minds.
However, one group of dedicated students wants to change that.
The Harmonium Project’s goal is to integrate Franciscan University’s student body with the downtown community of Steubenville by creating a music venue — used to host weekly concerts and, ultimately, entice students into the downtown area — that will double as an after-school music program for impoverished local children.
Co-founder and famed Patheos blogger Marc Barnes told The Troubadour in September that another goal is to help Franciscan students see Steubenville as more than just a place they’re going to college for four years at.
“There is a mentality that the downtown is a scary place,” he said. “We want to inspire a paradigm shift in the student body, from understanding the downtown area from mission territory to understanding it as their home.”
Steubenville’s local community seems enthusiastic about the new venue. Jerry Barilla, president of the Steubenville Revitalization Group, told the Herald-Star that the project could help achieve the longstanding goal of integrating Franciscan and Steubenville.
“The Harmonium Project may very well be the spark that ignites the revitalization of our downtown,” he said. “We are already hearing about other potential projects in the downtown and I am excited about the potential we could see here.”
So far, The Harmonium Project has hosted two major concerts, including an event at historic Fort Steuben featuring popular Christian singer-songwriter Audrey Assad. The Troubadour reported that more than 500 people gathered to hear Assad perform.
Pat Walters, The Harmonium Project’s social media manager, said in a promotional video that the results of The Harmonium project “have been outstanding,” even in just a few short months.
“The bands play, and the people come out in droves. They want to love their city, and we’re giving them the opportunity,” he said.
Walters explained during a Jan. 15 Google+ Hangout that the group is “looking for bands to fit into truth, beauty and goodness.” These standards will ensure that The Harmonium Project has the beneficial and lasting impact its founders are aiming to achieve.
“We want (the music) to be positive because we want it to have a positive effect on the downtown,” he added.
The venue will not limit itself to strictly secular or religious performing artists, though.
“Awesome music is not limited to Catholic or Christian artists, so I don’t see why the venue should be, either,” said Barnes during the video chat.
Assad, who also participated in the Hangout, enthusiastically endorsed the project, calling herself “a big fan of what (The Harmonium project) is doing.”
“I think it’s just a really beautiful project,” said Assad. “Not only to take an old building, which is already beautiful, and to make it available to the community for things like concerts and music and stuff like that, but also to employ the students and the neighbors and everyone together … working together as a city should be. I think it’s wonderful.”
The group currently rents their Fourth Street location, known as Oddfellows, for just $1 a month. With the help of volunteers, they’ve been working to restore the building.
Between Dec. 18, 2013 and Jan. 27, they managed to raise $30,878 via an indiegogo.com fundraiser site. This amount is just over 11 percent of their total monetary goal of $250,000.
The money is slated to help the group purchase the building, buy music equipment, pay childcare licensing fees and other expenses.
Some have expressed concerns that the project will fizzle when its founders graduate from school. But Barnes said during the video chat that several members of the project plan to remain in Steubenville after they graduate, and others are locals. He said that they hope to be able to “continuously replenish” the project with the overturn of students.
“There’s a lot of resources in a university,” he said. “The amount of excitement and willingness to help that the student body has shown so far really gives us the confidence that this is going to be something lasting.”