Plaza District

Crossroads for the Arts

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The Lyric Theater anchors the Plaza District, an emerging arts district in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City's Plaza District is an emerging arts district that is trying to combine the flavor of the diverse residential neighborhood to its south with younger, more experimental artists from the surrounding community. What once was a block and a half district of storage spaces is being transformed into a mixed-use district anchored by the Lyric Theater, a performance space in a rehabbed historic movie theater. The small theater, brought to this district through Oklahoma City incentives, offers intimate shows and edgy performances that attract a hip, urban clientele.

"Before Main Street got started in 2007, a nonprofit group working on the area's revitalization noticed that this area was where cultures mixed and would be a great place to recruit artists," says Kristen Vails, executive director of the Plaza District Main Street program.

The district's Main Street was a crossroads for the economically depressed Hispanic and Asian neighborhood to the south and the more affluent professional neighborhood to the north.

The area's low-rise historic buildings feature a variety of businesses, including a hair salon that participates in district fashion shows, vintage shops, a gluten-free vegetarian café, and a tattoo shop. Zoning that allows artist live-work spaces was very important to the Plaza District in order to keep rents affordable and attract new artists to the community. Right now, four arts and handmade crafts shops have residential space in the back so the artists-business owners can live where they work.

"Oklahoma City is getting too expensive for emerging artists to set up shop or even live," says Vails. "We worked with our property owners to make it easy for artists to move here. As property values rise, we hope that we will still be able to keep them here."

As artists moved in and businesses began opening, social media played a major role in informing people about activity in the Plaza District. Social networking through Facebook and Twitter was a natural way to connect with the arts community, university students, and the young crowd.

"Many of the businesses that have opened in the Plaza District are owned by people in their 20s and 30s," says Vails. "Social media was already a part of their lives. It really helps to get the word out about what's going on here when everyone talks about it on Facebook and Twitter at the same time."

Traditional print marketing materials and new online media help spread the word, but Vails, an artist herself, is already tapped into the area's arts scene. Because she represents the profile of the shoppers and artists who the district would like to attract, she has an insider's perspective on how to reach people.

Read the other articles in this series about Oklahoma Main Streets:

Oklahoma City: Bright and Booming in the Heartland
Stockyards City
Plaza District
Artists Alley
Wilburton
Perry

Plaza District Main Street is also using events to build the buzz. An autumn arts festival shows people what's in the district. It's also an opportunity to engage people from diverse neighborhoods. Volunteers created flyers promoting the event in several languages, worked through the local schools and churches, and went door to door to invite people to the event. Vails said the festival had a great turnout and attracted a very diverse crowd.

Located a few miles away is the established, vibrant Paseo Arts District, which holds a first Friday art walk event. The Plaza District has built on that momentum by creating its own art walk - Live on the Plaza - which takes place every second Friday. The audience for the Paseo district tends to be older and the participating artists are more traditional. The Paseo and Plaza Districts work together to promote each other; together, they are building a diverse arts community.

Vails has advice for other Main Street communities that are trying to create an arts district. "You need to be flexible to attract emerging and younger artists," she says. "Work with your property owners to offer shorter leases and subleases so artists can try it out and form co-ops to make it affordable. Pricing is so important."

Vails points out that it is more difficult to recruit established artists because they probably already have gallery space. The Main Street program should try to make it as simple for artists as possible – they just want to show up and create and work. And they don't want to be the only one there. Be sure to let them know a plan is in place to build a critical mass and ensure that more artists will come.

"I think when people come to Oklahoma City for the National Main Streets Conference, they'll see that the entire city is being revitalized," says Vails. "There is such an incredible energy here. We are all working together and getting along. It is exciting for the city."

THE POWER OF MAIN STREET

National Main Streets Conference: Oklahoma City, May 2-5, 2010.

There is only one gathering each year that brings together people who understand exactly what kind of work you do… the kinds of opportunities specifically available to a community like yours… the types of challenges you face and the creative ways to overcome them. It's the National Main Streets Conference.

For three days, you'll experience a whirlwind of great ideas, inspiring speakers, innovative solutions, and thought leaders who are involved in historic preservation-based economic development. Other conferences may explore community revitalization, but only our conference frames it within the structure of the proven Main Street Four-Point Approach® and shows you how to achieve your goals using volunteer teams.

We are pleased this year to showcase the successes and stories of Main Street communities throughout Oklahoma. This article showcases our host city and its revitalization story. Case studies from communities throughout Oklahoma highlight what's been happening in recent years around this great state to get you amped about joining us in Oklahoma City for our upcoming conference.

Free Main Street 101 Training from National Experts!

There's no free lunch anymore, but there is free Main Street 101 training by National Trust Main Street Center (NTMSC) staff. New directors, board members, and volunteers are invited to participate in our day-long, free training on the basics of the Main Street approach on Sunday, May 2, at the 2010 National Main Streets Conference. You don't have to be registered for the conference, but we bet the valuable education and the enthusiastic atmosphere will make you want to stay. If you are a Main Street executive director from a town near Oklahoma City with board members and volunteers who plan to experience the conference vicariously through you, encourage them to come for the day and attend the free Main Street 101 sessions. NTMSC staff will cover each point of the Main Street Approach and share inspiring examples so you'll know how things should be done.  Main Street 101 Training (free): Sunday, May 2, 8:30 a.m.–6:00 p.m.