(EAST HELENA) Local leaders gathered in East Helena Tuesday, to celebrate a grant that will pay for a program combining workforce development with arts and culture.
The East Helena community received $500,000 from ArtPlace America, a national collaboration of public and private groups that promotes the arts as a contributing part of community planning. That money will be used to create the East Helena Food and Culture Hub.
The three-year project will be centered around a new culinary training program, designed to prepare people for jobs with local food service businesses. It will also bring in artists to help the community think about its future and highlight East Helena’s heritage.
“This is a special place, it’s a unique place, and there’s really proud people here,” said East Helena Mayor Jamie Schell. “East Helena has a story to tell, and it has an identity to celebrate.”
The project will be administered by six partners – the city of East Helena, the East Helena School District, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Myrna Loy Center, the Helena Community Offender Reentry Program and business owner Shalon Hastings.
Organizers say the project was inspired by East Helena’s history of community picnics, often hosted by the ASARCO smelter, where residents of various ethnic backgrounds would share food and other cultural traditions.
“Some people like to say it was the smelter that brought people here to East Helena, but it was the food that brought and kept people together,” Schell said.
Today, project leaders say owners of food-related businesses in the Helena area are looking to expand, but having trouble finding qualified employees. They hope the culinary training program will provide hundreds of people with the skills they need to fill those jobs.
Many of the culinary arts classes will likely be conducted in the East Helena School District kitchens. Organizers say the program could launch in summer 2018, when the kitchens are not being used for schools.
This is the second time East Helena has applied for an ArtPlace America grant. The community was one of 23 grant recipients, chosen from 70 finalists. Almost 1,000 applications were initially filed.
Organizers said ArtPlace America was impressed with East Helena’s community spirit and the steps already being taken as the area adjusts to a post-industrial future.
“When the ArtPlace America team came to East Helena to look at our project before we submitted our final proposal, and they drove into this little town nestled up against a 14 million-ton slag pile, they had certain expectations of what they were going to find here,” said Krys Holmes, executive director of the Myrna Loy Center. “They were absolutely blown away by what they discovered in East Helena.”
Organizers say one of the key goals of the Food and Culture Hub project is to bring people together to talk about East Helena’s future. Many of the details of the project are still undecided, and leaders say public input will play a large role in how it develops. They plan to hold a community gathering to kick off the project early next year.