An Arts & Entertainment District: Is It Right for Your Main Street?

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In Main Streets across the nation, the creative arts trend is manifesting itself in the form of designated, planned arts districts, posing new challenges for community leaders, real estate developers, and Main Street. Fortunately, Main Street has an advantage. In a departure from more traditional economic development models in which workers are drawn to an area by jobs, footloose and often self-employed artists and other creative-minded workers are more likely to choose their homes based on quality of life and livability factors—features inherent to historic main streets and downtown areas. Even better news—under the right conditions, the Main Street Four-Point Approach® can provide a complementary planning framework for an arts district, infusing new life, cultural vibrancy, and capital into rural and urban Main Streets alike.

While an arts district might seem like an easy option, it’s not a good fit for every Main Street community. Much like conducting a market analysis, for example, deciding to proceed with an arts district requires an honest evaluation of a community’s resources, analysis of the potential effects on residents, commitment by dedicated leadership as well as the community at large, and a huge amount of time and patience to ensure success

Arts Districts and the Main Street Four Point Approach®

Amy Webb, currently with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Western Field Services and previously the program director for the National Trust’s Heritage Tourism Program, feels that the Main Street methodology works well with arts and entertainment districts because both the revitalization strategy and district niche creation rely on building on your assets. But, she cautions, you must have something to work with because it is really hard to start from scratch.

“It’s a whole lot easier for a community with an existing arts culture, scene, or businesses to turn those assets into something more formal,” says Webb. “You need that initial organic component.”
Let’s take a look at arts districts in a couple of Main Street communities through the lens of each of the Four Points.

DESIGN: Paducah Renaissance Alliance/Paducah, Kentucky |Arts/Artisan District 

SOTW_3-21-12_A&E_PaducahWhile many people automatically think about Main Street’s physical appearance when it comes to the Main Street’s design component, what they often forget about are the policies and codes that shape the built environment. In Paducah, Kentucky, a town well known in the world of arts-based revitalization for its Artist Relocation Program and business recruitment strategies, a less widely known fact is that design also plays a huge role in the Main Street district’s success as an arts community.

In Paducah, offering purchasing and design services, as well as expanding zoning guidelines, were all instrumental in the Paducah Renaissance Alliance’s ability to attract and retain an artist community. Paducah’s Artist Relocation Incentive Program, which has become something of a national model for arts-based economic development, permits the sale of properties for a little as $1 to applicants with qualifying proposals. The program also offers reimbursements of up to $2,500 for architectural or other professional services associated with approved proposals.
The Artist Relocation Program, which began in March 2000, was designed to lure artists to Paducah and establish the city as an artist enclave. Through the program, the City of Paducah offered artists the aforementioned economic incentives which, combined with generous financing from the Paducah Bank, a community partner, drew enough artists to cultivate a flourishing artistic community over the past decade. To date, artists and residents have invested more than $30 million in the arts district.

The other facet of the available relocation incentives, of course, was the availability of zoning that could accommodate and easily facilitate proposed new uses for the LowerTown Arts District. To ensure that artists could rehab and convert buildings in the area targeted by the Artist Relocation Program, the LowerTown Arts District has been zoned for live/work space. This zoning effectively enables residents, artists, and non-artists alike to create mixed-use space consisting of galleries, studios, restaurants, cafés, and living space under one roof.

PROMOTION: Old Town Lansing/Lansing, Michigan | Creative Production District

SOTW_3-21-12_A&E_OldLansingIt goes without saying that the promotion component of Main Street works particularly well with an arts agenda by allowing a district to communicate its unique characteristics, business establishments, and activities to people in the community and surrounding region. Showcasing this relationship is Old Town Lansing, a Main Street community that boasts the highest concentration of arts and creative service businesses in the state of Michigan. Old Town Lansing also won a 2011 Great American Main Street Award.

It’s no secret that Old Town Lansing’s arts-based events have allowed this Main Street community to promote itself as the arts and entertainment district of Lansing. In fact, one of the community’s most popular events, the Old Town ScrapFest, highlights the way the district was able to take an area once perceived as a community eyesore and rebrand it, stimulating a sense of community pride and drawing in tourists through an arts-based event.

The annual Old Town ScrapFest gives teams, usually composed of local businesses or art organizations, an hour to collect scraps from a scrap yard outside of town. After their initial haul, the teams are given two weeks to create sculptures out of the scraps they have collected. The sculptures are put on public display and then auctioned at a closely linked event, the Festival of the Moon and Sun. Proceeds are donated to the Old Town Commercial Association to further community economic development in Old Town Lansing.

Old Town Scrapfest has become a defining event for Old Town Lansing, creating a positive image for the community and increased tourist and consumer interest in the district. As a result of these promotional efforts, Old Town’s festivals, some of which draw a regional, if not national crowd, have a large economic impact on the neighborhood as well. According to Brittney Hoszkiw, former executive director of Old Town Lansing, several developers and business owners were first introduced to Old Town Lansing’s arts district through one of its festivals.

The draw? A genuine arts experience. “People will travel hundreds of miles for a feeling of authenticity. They’re looking for a chance to be engaged,” says Hoszkiw. “In Old Town Lansing, or any other Main Street, is all about experience... it’s about empowerment and exclusivity…you can’t manufacture that.”

ECONOMIC RESTRUCTURING: Economic Restructuring: Downtown Frederick Partnership/Frederick, Maryland | Neighborhood Arts District

SOTW_3-21-12_A&E_FrederickAs most Main Street aficionados know, one of the primary challenges for an economic restructuring committee is finding the optimal combination of neighborhood uses that builds on local assets and community preferences and strengthens a community’s identity. In Frederick, Maryland, the Downtown Frederick Partnership has managed to augment its economic restructuring efforts by encouraging renovation of historic properties through state-level policy and incentive programs. The result has been a very welcoming environment for artists and arts enterprises.

The economic restructuring committee has implemented a business retention program, holds property owner outreach events, and has launched a “Get It Downtown” campaign focusing on local businesses. The Frederick Downtown Partnership also co-manages a Maryland Arts and Entertainment District, helping to market and publicize the tax incentives associated with this program. Demonstrating the complementary aspects of historic downtowns and planned arts districts, a portion of Frederick is also a designated historic district, adding another layer of potential tax credits for developers interested in renovating historic properties, which can then be marketed to artists or artistic enterprises.

According to Kara Norman, executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership, while the credits aren’t enough to persuade an artist to move to Frederick, they do provide an added incentive for artists who are already residents of the community. Additionally, some artists and savvy developers have taken advantage of either the Arts and Entertainment District tax incentives or the Maryland State Historic Tax Credits, resulting in increased renovations in Frederick.

“In general, developers in Frederick are trying to renovate buildings to make them attractive to tenants,” says Norman, “Because most artists and artistic organizations rent their space, they are able to take advantage of this development in Frederick.”

ORGANIZATION: Eureka Springs Downtown Network/Eureka Springs, Arkansas | Neighborhood Arts District

SOTW_3-21-12_A&E_EurekaSpringsOrganization in the Main Street Four-Point Approach is about building partnerships and establishing consensus among various groups and stakeholders in a Main Street community. As one of the most well-known arts communities in Arkansas, but a relatively new Main Street community (designated in 2007), the Eureka Springs Downtown Network has managed to use its organizational prowess to get long-time resident artists and the Eureka Springs community as a whole to work toward the common goal of building a vibrant neighborhood business district.

Eureka Springs has had a flourishing artist community since the 1950s; today it features more than 20 galleries, theaters, the Eureka Springs School of Art, and other venues that complement businesses in the downtown commercial district. In this town, artists are business people, homeowners, and valuable community members.

The key to introducing Main Street and organizing the Eureka Springs community has actually been to adopt a relatively hands-off approach. According to Jacqueline Wolven, executive director of the Eureka Springs Downtown Network, the key to consensus building has been to position Main Street as a community resource that offers technical help and supplemental promotion to local artists. “What I have found is most successful is when I offer my support, either technical or marketing,” says Wolven, “and if they don’t take me up on it, that’s okay. But I don’t push myself— I’m there as a resource.” 

This approach has helped garner support from within the artist community as well as the larger Eureka Springs Main Street network. “We are an arts district, but we don’t take advantage of our artists. We respect that they are working individuals,” says Wolven. “We see artists as serious business people. And I think that helps them too, because it encourages them to see themselves as important to the town.”

Conclusion

During a time when the arts are often the first budget item to be cut, the growth of successful arts districts in Main Street communities demonstrates that investing in creative and artistic ventures offers an approach to community revitalization that complements the Main Street Four-Point Approach®. Careful market research, asset mapping, speaking with community members, and the other tools used to launch a Main Street program will help your community decide if it is ready and able to start an arts district. An important thing to remember: even if a formal arts district is not an appropriate niche market for your Main Street, there will most likely be opportunities to infuse art into your district through festivals and special events.

As the four spotlighted communities have demonstrated, creating a successful arts district depends on a “perfect storm” of policies and resources to ensure long-term, sustainable success. Given the right conditions, however, Main Street and arts districts can join forces to create an exciting, engaging visitor experience and stronger community ties for both rural and urban Main Streets.

Interested in learning more about the arts? Learn everything you need to know at the National Main Streets Conference in Baltimore, April 1-4, 2012

Attend the Monday session “Art in the Heart: Three Community Perspectives about Revitalizing Main Street Through Art,” to hear from your peers about ways to incorporate the arts without creating an arts district. And on Wednesday, attend the session “Using the Arts for Economic Development on Main Street,” to learn more about creating an arts district and hear about funding sources from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Visit GAMSA-winner, Frederick, Md., mentioned in this article on the Sunday tour “Critical Mass – Sustaining a Great American Main Street.”  Or on Tuesday, visit three other successful arts and entertainment districts in Maryland on the “Leveraging Investment and Creativity with Arts and Entertainment Districts” tour.  Lastly, take the “Station North: Where Arts and Entertainment Mean Business” tour to check out some creative artist live-work spaces and eclectic arts venues in Baltimore.

Extend your stay in Baltimore and sign up for the The National Symposium on Arts/Cultural/Entertainment Districts that will be held on April 4-5, 2012, immediately following our conference. The symposium seeks to bring policy makers, practitioners, and artists together to engage in dialogue on the economic, social and cultural impact of designated arts and entertainment districts. Visit www.stationnorth.org/calendar/nsaced for more information.