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How a family of Syracuse entrepreneurs used a doomed church to save the city symphony -

Symphoria streamed its concerts virtually from Inspiration Hall during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of SymphoriaCourtesy of Symphoria
Dan Feng had the old St. Peter Church building on James Street to himself on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. He fiddled with the switchboard behind the stage to bring up the house lights in the cavernous hall, then walked past rows of empty pews towards the front of the building.
“The acoustics were terrible in here,” he said, disappearing up a winding staircase to the second floor balcony.
Not so bad now, though, after his family added sound treatments to the old building. The stage is also much bigger than it used to be, lengthened at the request of Syracuse’s local orchestra.
The Fengs partly own the old church, now named Inspiration Hall, and donated the space to Syracuse’s Symphoria orchestra when the pandemic forced live music into an extended intermission.
The Fengs have supported Symphoria financially and otherwise for years, since Dan’s parents emigrated to the city in the 1960s from Taiwan and eventually started their tech business downtown in the late ‘80s.
“We don’t want to think, especially after the past two and a half years, where we would be without them,” said Pam Murcheson, Symphoria’s executive director.
It’s not an obvious fit for the Fengs’ business: the family owns and operate Progressive Expert Consulting, a language instruction tech company that has worked with Special Operations Command and the Air Force.
Dan’s mother, Betty Feng, is CEO. Dan is chief technology officer and his brother, Tim, is chief operating officer. Youngest brother Mike is vice president of operations. Dan, Tim and Mike’s dad, Francis, was formerly chief operating officer. He died last year.
But Betty and Francis loved classical music, said Dan, and they passed a sense of duty to community onto the kids, partly driven by their Christian faith. Francis began a bible study group at Syracuse University aimed at acclimating Chinese students to Syracuse.
Dan Feng stands in Inspiration Hall, which his family offered up to Syracuse Symphoria as a practice space during the pandemic.
Betty is in her mid-70s now, so the kids are taking on the day-to-day operations of PEC. But she still sings soprano in Oratorio Society, a mixed choral group of Syracuse University students and community members. Mike is on the board at Symphoria.
“We always had music in the house,” said Dan. His mom had classical training when she was growing up in Taiwan and his parents often hosted music faculty from Syracuse University in their home.
Betty and Francis went to events by Syracuse Symphony, the predecessor to Symphoria, while they were pursuing degrees at Syracuse University. In 1987, after she achieved her Ph.D. in instructional design from Syracuse University, Betty started PEC, now housed in the building across the street from Inspiration Hall.
The Fengs bought the St. Peter Roman Catholic Church building on James Street in 2010. The Roman Catholic congregation that had used the church had dwindled by then, and in 2008 joined with Our Lady of Pompei on Ash Street.
Before they bought it, there was speculation that the building could be torn down, said Dan, and turned into something that would make money. CNY Crossroads, Inc., a religious 501c3, purchased it instead. The Feng brothers make up the majority of the voting board of the non-profit, which also owns the former Rockefeller United Methodist Church on the east side.
From 2010 to 2020, 23 religious institutions in Syracuse have closed or been sold or redeveloped, including St. Peter’s. Nine sat vacant, as of 2020.
When the pandemic shut down live shows for Symphoria in 2020, choking off the symphony’s revenue stream from ticket sales, the Fengs offered up Inspiration Hall, rent-free.
“It was something we thought we could do,” said Dan.
The Fengs also loaned their live-stream equipment so the orchestra could sell tickets to online concerts. Over the past nine seasons, Symphoria has performed about 85 concerts at Inspiration Hall. They perform in other venues, too, but Inspiration Hall was home base during the early months of the pandemic, and is the best venue for kids concerts, said Murcheson.
“That first full year of COVID … It was our home,” she said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic the symphony has received funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Shuttered Venue Operator Grant, Employee Retention Credit under the CARES Act and individual donations.
“What the Fengs and other donors have given us is some time to rebound,” she said.
And it’s nice to breathe life into the old building, she said, which once could have been razed.
“A lot of people used to go to mass there,” said Murcheson. “Of course the Fengs and Symphoria want our doors to feel open to the community.”
Dan sat in the pews below a stained glass window in the hall. A spot of colored light glowed on the floor next to him.
His parents and his brothers have put down roots in Syracuse, said Dan. The next generation’s plans will be their own.
He pointed to small black lettering on the panes of glass, a memorial note to a loved one of the family that purchased the window.
“It’s not bad every once in a while just to pause and think and remember why something is here,” he said.
Jules Struck writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her anytime at [email protected] or on Instagram at julesstruck.journo.
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