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Editorial: While some joke about a comedy center in Jamestown, the concept makes sense

There is some obvious risk in the work of establishing a multimillion-dollar National Comedy Center in Jamestown, but the risk is calculated and well worth the attention – that is, money – it is getting from both Albany and Washington.

Such an undertaking always carries an element of risk, of course. Will people come? Will they be willing to pay enough to support it?

In this case, though, the risk is amplified by the center’s location. As lovely as Jamestown is, it’s not a destination in the way that, say, New York City is, or even Branson, Mo.

But there are compensations. It’s near the Chautauqua Institution, which is a popular attraction. It’s not far from Lake Erie and within easy distance of population centers including Toronto, Rochester, Cleveland and, of course, Buffalo.

But the ace in the hole is Jamestown’s status as the birthplace of Lucille Ball, a world-renowned comedian/clown who remains beloved 28 years after her death. She is an American comedy touchstone and if her legacy is creatively presented, the center has an advantage that could overcome other concerns.

Government leaders certainly appear to believe that. The 2017-18 state budget adopted last month provides $8.3 million to the center while Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, announced last week that the federal New Market Tax Credit would provide a net of $4.8 million for the comedy center. Reed previously secured a $1.7 million grant for the center from the Department of Commerce.

Jamestown is already leveraging its Lucy connection with the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum & Center for Comedy. The area also got perhaps unwanted attention in 2015 with the unveiling of a statue that quickly became known as Scary Lucy, but the likeness was replaced with a more comforting statue last year. It stands in Lucille Ball Memorial Park in Celoron, just outside Jamestown and Lucille Ball’s actual birthplace.

Still the National Comedy Center has higher aspirations, aiming to become “the first national visitor experience dedicated entirely to the art of comedy.” It will include an interactive museum, which is already under construction, along with a year-round schedule of performances and discussions. It’s not hard to imagine, under the right circumstances, that A-list comedians would want to make a pilgrimage there, helping to attract audiences and drawing other comedians.

Intriguingly, the center will even offer an educational feature supporting young comedians and providing training. Will there be an award for best class clown?

The center, predictably, has its critics who think government shouldn’t be sending tax dollars to such an undertaking. But, in Jamestown, this fits. Just as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council concluded that a solar manufacturing plan made sense in Buffalo, a comedy center is well-placed in Jamestown.

There are risks, to be sure, and critics who obsess on them. But there is also a good chance of a handsome payoff that will put people to work, bolster the local economy by attracting other developments and add to local and state tax bases.

If it works as planned, a number of people may be laughing all the way to the bank.

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