Downtown Cultural Districts are the New Incubators of Creativity

A recent report about art and culture and role of the states may change the face of cities across America.

Every few years the National Assembly of State Art Agencies (NASAA) takes a look at what states are doing to encourage "place based" economic development. Their particular interest is "synergies between the arts and other businesses."

The 2012 NASAA Policy Brief released earlier this year heralds cultural districts in 12 states, totaling 156 unique developments. What they have reported is heartening and may foreshadow a change in thinking about the vital role of the arts and economic development.

In just the last few years, more State Executives with responsibilities for art and culture have championed "cultural districts" to "revitalize" communities.

Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and Massachusetts are the most recent state agencies to establish such an initiative. Eight other states recognized such districts as tax free enterprises and have adopted similar efforts. The appointees, usually loyal friends of the elected Governor, don't often take on issues of local economic development. But this seems to be changing, as many appointees are visionary leaders, action oriented, and making their voices heard.

The NASAA brief acknowledges:

"States use a variety of tax incentives to encourage business development within local cultural districts. Exemptions and credits for artists and businesses within a district encourage activity and contribute to a locality's bottom line. Examples of state incentives include:

1. Sales tax credits or exemptions for goods produced or sold within the district,
2. Property tax credits or exemptions for qualified renovations or construction,
3. Income tax credits or exemptions for artists living and working within the district,
4. Preservation tax credits for historic property renovations and rehabilitation,
5. Amusement/Admission tax waivers for events within the district, and eligibility for special loan funds."

All the plans vary.

Gary Gibbs, executive director of the Texas Commission for the Arts, points out that there is no funding of the districts per se but once a city gets the nod from the state, there is help from the economic development fund or the Texas Cultural Trust.

Massachusetts provides no state funding either but does offer "a number of funding programs" that might help and provides "technical resources" to support the development of individual district plans. Even Maryland, which claims to be the first state in the country to sponsor Arts and Entertainment Districts as a way to stimulate the economy and improve quality of life, offers tax incentives and similar benefits.

Just the "State Cultural District" designation from the state seems to be enough for cities to apply, but you have to wonder what cities could do, and whether smaller cities might apply, if a little financial help were forthcoming.

Perhaps one of the latest plans comes from New Mexico -- not mentioned in the report, probably because of the timing or perhaps because it didn't originate from an art agency. It was a grant to support the city of Raton's plan for updating the city's Downtown Master Plan. The $45,000 grant came from the New Mexico "MainStreet" organization, which operates under the state's Economic Development Department and oversees local MainStreet programs, as well as the formally recognized arts and cultural districts.

The MainStreet program is actually a result of an agreement between several agencies, particularly the economic development office and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

All these projects are, in a sense, the new incubators of creativity, by both luring the creative class to such places and by adding significantly to the establishment of a thriving creative sector, increasingly seen as a powerful economic development asset.

We have known for some time that public art with sculptures, statutes, and murals everywhere, and buildings with their uniquely craved doorways, cornices, and columns are usually what distinguish one city from another. Some cities sparkle with such architectural innovations and become magnets for people living and working in the area. If downtown, such places easily become the living rooms of whole regions.

More important perhaps, these art and cultural districts -- with their critical mass of art galleries, cinemas, music venues, public squares for performances, restaurants, cafes, and retail shops-are attracting, and nurturing the creative workforce our cities need to succeed in the new economy.

NASAA relies, in part, on the work of Americans for the Arts (AFTA) who in 1998 researched the emergence of such districts in which the arts were used as part of a strategy for revitalizing cities. Theresa Cameron, Local Arts Agency Services Program Manager of AFTA plans to produce a update of the earlier report, and more importantly, envisions a proposed a three year effort to involve mayors and other city executives in the discussion, including webinars, conferences and inactive media to help cities across America reinvent their city for the age of "creativity and innovation."

As the geographical landscape of a city morphs into a larger metropolitan region-partly because of growth, mostly out of economic necessity-what we call downtown becomes even more critical to wealth and well-being of the people living in those communities. Few efforts to insure America's success and survival in the new economy could be more important.