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From Wallingford to Camden

Katharine Spadenta’s life prepared her for Main Street

Posted: March 16, 2017 6:39 p.m.
Updated: March 17, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

Katharine Spadacenta, the city of Camden’s new Main Street program manager, stands next to a kiosk at the corner of Broad and Rutledge streets that supplies information about the city’s different districts. Spadacenta, who moved to Camden from Connecticut in August, will focus mostly on the downtown district, she said she hopes the Main Street program’s impact will have ripple effects across the city. She is Camden’s first Main Street manager in about 25 years.

It’s cliché to say someone’s life has prepared them for their latest role, but it may actually be true for Katharine Spadacenta.

Born in Wallingford, Conn. -- “kind of halfway between Hartford and New Haven,” she said -- Spadacenta spent the first 13 years of her life in what she called a “grand historic home.”

“I think it was built around 1890, 1900. It was really cool,” she said. “It had a butler pantry, a bench in the dining room, pocket doors, dumbwaiter, staircase with a servant’s stairway and a dirt floor in the basement. I’m not a history buff, but to have a glimpse into how life used to be … it was a very neat house.”

In February, Spadacenta became Camden’s first Main Street program manager in about 25 years. Growing up in the house in Wallingford was just the first step along a path of experiences that led to her new assignment: Taking what city staff has already built on and making sure the “ball keeps rolling” in terms of strengthening downtown Camden as a commercial and cultural center.

Between Wallingford and college, Spadacenta’s family lived in different Connecticut towns. It was in high school that she found herself on one of the next steps toward Camden. She wrote a monthly student column for the local newspaper. That led to interning at and then working for a newspaper, writing up things like the calendar of events.

She also did some work with her high school’s theater department, serving as the set designer for a production of “Guys & Dolls.”

“I did that for a couple of years and I had my times on stage, but I much preferred being backstage,” she said.

Spadacenta entered Quin-nipiac College, which became Quinnipiac University while she was there. While earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in communications with an emphasis on journalism, she helped found a nonprofit, all-volunteer theater company called Mastermind Productions. The company put on a production each summer, donating all its proceeds to charity.

Spadacenta also transitioned from print journalism to broadcast news at Quinnipiac’s WQUN-AM 1220.

“During my senior year, there was a change in management at the radio station and I got the chance to work for them full-time as the afternoon news anchor,” Spadacenta said. “I worked there for five years. In 2004, I moved from news anchor to production director.”

While she was not a disc jockey, working for WQUN opened her up to two new experiences: enjoying adult standards from the 1930s to 1960s, and becoming a baseball fan. The music included big band orchestras and pop crooners.

“It was music a lot of kids my age didn’t listen to,” Spadacenta said.

Meanwhile, the radio station was a CBS News and Boston Red Sox affiliate.

“When you run board for 162 regular season games, you pay attention and become a baseball fan,” she said. “And it was a great time for that because, in August 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series -- the 86-year-long curse had been broken.”

All the while, Spadacenta continued her involvement in Connecticut’s community theater and met a director who, when called upon to direct a new two-woman show, asked her to serve as the production’s stage manager. So, Spadacenta hung up her radio headphones and headed out on the road.

“It was independently produced -- a very small team, which made it more fun; our little family unit. It was an excellent opportunity that I took advantage of,” Spadacenta said.

The tour traveled as far south as Charlotte and Atlanta, but also headed out west: Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and up and down the California coast. The two stars, one of whom was also the playwright, performed 14 characters in a series of monologues.

“I was in my mid-20s. It was a really great opportunity and I got to see parts of the country I wouldn’t have seen,” Spadacenta said. “It showed me how we are one country and yet made up of so many different places and cultures. Coming from a small New England town … we were in Tulsa and a couple of women told me they drove 400 miles to see the show … that was so humbling. It was eye opening.”

After the tour, Spadacenta returned home and eventually became the communications officer for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Such foundations, she said, are built out of private donations -- bequeaths as investments with details of how they should benefit children or medical research, for example.

“New Haven was one of the older ones, about 90 years old, serving 20 towns helping make the communities aware of nonprofits and educating on philanthropy. Its purpose was to create and strengthen the community,” Spadacenta said.

She said the work involved a lot of marketing and writing for various platforms to create public awareness of the foundation and the entities it supported.

“It was nice to know I was doing something I knew was making a difference for the greater good of the public,” she said.

Amidst all this, she met and married her husband, Peter, an industrial electrician; they have a 4-year-old daughter. The combination of all her experiences at that point, including the two-woman touring production, as well as time her husband spent in Colorado, made the idea of moving less of a radical change than it might to some other couples.

“We knew that (Connecticut) wasn’t all that was available to us,” she said.

They wanted a different lifestyle, something more comfortable and relaxed than the hectic, fast-past life of New England.

“There’s nothing particularly wrong with Connecticut,” Spadacenta said, but then added, “but they’re about to get 20 inches of snow! It’s also an expensive place to live.”

Her husband is an outdoorsy sort, she said, who likes hunting and fishing and wanted to relax on a sizeable piece of land. So, they started looking. One of Peter’s siblings lives in North Carolina; another in Conway. The Carolinas seemed like the right direction.

“We drove around the Charlotte area, then Myrtle Beach and we were actually on our way to Greenville when we went through Columbia,” Spadacenta said. “We saw that it was a really great city with a great vibe and it seemed to be doing well economically … where we could find work and a community to live in.”

Once they focused in on the Midlands, Spadacenta’s husband found a 10-acre parcel of land near Camden. She started researching the city.

“It seemed like it has a real sense of history but also a vision for the future. I told my husband, ‘Yeah, this looks like a good fit … it has everything we’re looking for,’” she said.

Searching online and visiting in person, the Spadacentas found they liked downtown Camden, Lake Wateree, the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County and more.

“All the different elements -- it was the culture we were looking for: something like small-town charm with all the amenities and close to Columbia, if we needed, but what I’ve found is that I rarely have to leave Camden,” Spadacenta said. “It’s comforting and encouraging. There is a real sense of pride here, and I like that, too.”

There’s even a small, short-lived childhood connection for Spadacenta: horses. As a child, she spent a couple of years competing in equestrian vaulting, which she described as gymnastics on a horse, similar to what you might see at a circus.

“It’s another of those things that, while I’m not intimately involved with horses, seeing the equestrian community here, it’s part of the whole package,” Spadacenta said.

They became Camden area residents in August. A few months later, she learned of the city’s re-entry into Main Street SC program and decided to apply to be its manager. The sense of “working for the greater good” she felt at the New Haven foundation came bubbling back up.

“What attracted me to this job is the similar commitment to working to make the community stronger,” Spadacenta said.

Camden’s 2017 version of Main Street SC is still in the organization phase. It is, Spadacenta said, based on the national program’s model based on a four-point approach: organization, design, promotion and economic vitality. Now that Spadacenta is on board, the next big step is getting public input. To that end, there will be community meetings in April.

“We’ve already taken steps toward the next level of engagement,” she said. “The downtown district is a small community of business owners and stakeholders and it (Main Street) only works when they work collaboratively.”

As for her role, Spadacenta said she is taking everything she’s learned on the way to Camden, putting it together with what city staff has already done and integrating it with things like the city’s vision and comprehensive land use plans and a study that led to the city’s current “Classically Carolina” brand.

“It’s about me coming in as part of that team. Looking at it and saying, ‘this is what’s been done, here’s what the city is already doing that needs to be strengthened’ on our way to accomplishing our goals. We all have to work together; it’s all intertwined,” she said.

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