Chautauqua Needs To Straighten Its Priorities

There comes a time when our perspective should be challenged and realigned. In regards to the suggested expenditures for the remodeling of the historic Chautauqua Amphitheater, I believe perspective has been lost and an adjustment is in order.

I pastor a church in the heart of Jamestown, where nearly 30 percent of our city is a federally designated food desert. A combination of poverty indicators, lack of transportation and lack of full service grocery stores offering healthy food bring about this perfect storm called a Food Desert. The lack of transportation especially complicates the matter, making it necessary for many impoverished families to rely on convenience stores as their main source for groceries. I wonder what else could be done with the $30 million dollars scheduled to be spent on the Amphitheater if it were to be put to work in other ways. With the help of a study done in cooperation with the Chautauqua Health Network and the University of Buffalo in 2013 titled “Invest in Fresh,” our church has come to the conclusion that starting a healthy corner store in the food desert of Jamestown would be a viable means to minister to the poor and assist in revitalizing our dear city.

Allow me to ask a bold question: Is spending $30 million the best use of that kind of money in Chautauqua County? I believe the answer is a resounding “no.” I dream of raising just 1.66 percent of that amount ($500,000) to get such a grocery store off the ground. That amount is just 1/65 of the total you desire to spend in phase one of the Amphitheater reconstruction. Perhaps true fiscal responsibility should reach beyond the fences surrounding Chautauqua, even while you seek to maintain the treasure within.

The same mixed emotions of fiscal priority erupted in my soul this past winter when I heard that 30-second commercial spots in the telecast of the Super Bowl cost $4.5 million each. In 30 seconds, the funding vanished that could have supported nine healthy corner stores in Jamestown. Our people could have access to good food within walking distance during the harsh, cold winter when the Amphitheater sits empty and unused.

I want to challenge you to open you minds, hearts, ears, eyes and wallets to the realities of Chautauqua County. There are great needs outside the fences surrounding Chautauqua. I admire the desire to preserve the Historic Amphitheater, but there are greater needs for preserving our county. With such talent and financial resources available this close by, please reconsider your actions and bless those who are outside your fence before you bless those inside.

Our church does this often and receives a blessing every time. Four times each year, when there are five Sundays in a month, our church gives away its weekly offering. We have given to the Jamestown Renaissance Corp., Chautauqua Striders, Union Gospel Mission, missionaries of foreign lands, Operation Christmas Child, the teachers of Love Elementary School, and many more. What if Chautauqua thought “philanthropy first, amphitheater second”? Have you considered what a blessing you could be? Have you thought about how much more impact you could promote in the “public theater” rather than the amphitheater?

Chautauquans, I implore you to reconsider your course of action. The mission of Chautauqua includes these words: “the exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life” I ask you, whose life is being enriched? Poverty is never the way to explore the best in human values. I challenge you therefore, in the midst of actively pursuing options to preserve and update the amphitheater, to also seek to preserve and update the lives of many in need in Chautauqua County. Consider giving a portion of what you raise for yourselves to others outside your ranks. Put your mission statement into action and enrich the lives of others, seeking to offer them a chance at experiencing a new level of human value. Just as our church gives a portion, I encourage you to give outwardly before you invest inwardly. Who knows, you may even come to realize, like many people do, that what we “want” and what we “need” are two entirely different things.

I dream of a Chautauqua that is known by its virtues of compassion and generosity, investing in the whole county by addressing its greatest needs. I dream of a Chautauqua that is accessible to all residents of the county to participate in the enrichment you offer.

Brett D. Heintzman is pastor of the Jamestown Free Methodist Church