District Mine 

A special arts district is all we need? Think again.

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As a Quirk Gallery exhibit shows, art is a window to the mind. But there's a different sort of psychological examination happening at the downtown gallery Jan. 27, with a cool, crisp, early-morning gathering of Richmond's business, booster, government, arts and cultural leaders.

They're here to consider the advice of Theresa Cameron of Americans for the Arts, an author of Maryland's arts and cultural district law and a recognized national expert on creating specially designated arts districts as economic and tourism engines. “You don't just say we'll put one in here and people will come,” Cameron tells the gathering, stressing cooperation with Richmond's leaders but also “acceptance and buy-in from the community at large.”

For nearly a year, city leaders, state codes and the city's arts community have alternately clashed and come together over discussions of how best to preserve and to promote this short, once-blighted stretch of Broad Street and its First Fridays Arts Walk, an event that based on attendance has become one of the city's single most successful economic-development activities of the past decade.

The meeting signals hopeful signs of cooperation. City leaders are on board, and Councilman Charles Samuels' office has been working on a proposal to create an arts district. Any such plan would require only a vote by City Council. As easy as the process may sound, the meeting also reveals potential conflict that threatens to dilute all efforts.

The meeting's participants are varied, which should be a strength but could well reveal itself as the greatest weakness in any effort to create a Richmond arts and culture district: Valentine Richmond History Museum Executive Director Bill Martin, who helped oversee the adoption of a cultural action plan for the major arts organizations, Curated Culture Director Christina Newton, organizer of First Fridays; a handful of art gallery owners and directors; two Jack Berrys, respective heads of the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau and Venture Richmond; Richmond's community development director, Rachel Flynn, city booster and CenterStage ringleader Jim Ukrop, Maymont Foundation Executive Director Norman Burns, here representing Museum District leaders, Samuels, and Suzette Denslow, chief of staff to Mayor Dwight C. Jones. 

One notable absence is anyone directly representing the city's Department of Economic Development, which may already possess the tools needed to create a successful arts district.

Cameron gives plenty of advice: Push for lengthy leases so that cultural businesses are protected from rent increases, develop shared spaces and draft zoning requirements similar to mixed income housing requirements in order to encourage affordable business spaces. Most of all, she says, “everybody has to work together.” And one more word of advice: “I caution you about not making your district too large.” Overall, she says, “you guys are on the right track.”

During the presentation, there's plenty of head nodding. Afterward, Ukrop is seen in an enthusiastic conversation with Cameron, seemingly quizzing her for more information.

But little more than 24 hours after Cameron outlines the importance of working together toward a united goal — of focusing efforts on geographically manageable zones — disunity in Richmond's leadership lays itself bare in a series of e-mails sent between Maymont's Burns and the event's organizer, John Bryan. He's president of CultureWorks, a cultural arts umbrella group reformed last year in an effort to unify the direction of Richmond's arts leadership.

Burns, whose voice is new to the public discourse about arts and culture districts, inserts a proprietary wedge into the congratulatory tone of Bryan's next-day debriefing e-mail: “I personally do not like Arts and Entertainment District as a descriptor for Richmond,” Burns writes. He draws a line in the sand for those involved in the arts district discussion that conjures turf war rather than cooperation. “Do not forget that the corridors mentioned yesterday have to include the Boulevard.”

The Valentine's Martin tries to restore focus to what location or locations may become arts districts, suggesting a future in which Richmond has five arts, culture or museum districts, centered around museums downtown and on Boulevard, and arts and cultural amenities on Main and Broad streets and in Manchester. 

The city's Flynn says she's watched the e-mail debate and calls Burns' push for inclusion valid, and part of answering the question of what Richmond wants from an arts district. “Do we include the Boulevard because of the museums?” Flynn asks. “What about Main Street? Do we go into Manchester? A big part of this whole question around arts districts is how do you define the boundaries? What are peoples' expectations?”

But the cracks Burns reveals threaten to expand, worries Newton with Curated Culture. “The problem I don't think people understand is we can have as many districts as we want, but it's one thing to create tax incentives in one area,” she says, worried that five districts become six and then more. “Do you multiply [district incentives] by five areas in a city already in debt?”

Ironically, though not yet in name, Richmond may already have the proto-arts district that the parties seek — though it may encompass just the sort of sprawling geographical area Cameron warns against.
In 2003, a combination of state and local incentives helped secure tobacco giant Philip Morris's decision to move its headquarters here from New York. Among those incentives was the creation of a massive enterprise zone area straddling parts of Henrico and a massive swath of Richmond.

Richmond's zone, which contains many — if not most — of the tax and financing incentives written into the state's recently adopted arts district legislation, excludes far less than it includes. Most of the Fan District and a large quadrant bordered by the Downtown Expressway, the Henrico County line and points just west of the Lee Bridge are the largest areas outside of it.

Since the matter of the arts district has gained traction with politicians and top-level business leaders, many of the First Fridays gallery owners have said they're unaware of either the enterprise zone or of the incentives that it may offer. Among those incentives are generous tax rebates and loans for rehabilitation of buildings for both property owners and tenants, even grants to assist in hiring new employees.

Newton says she's met with the city's chief financial officer, Peter Chapman, who oversees the city's Department of Economic Development, but confirms that many of the incentives available remain unknown and unadvertised by the department charged with promoting them. “We have worked on and off [over the years] with economic development, but they haven't done a great job of educating the community to the benefits they could provide to small businesses,” Newton says, leaving struggling arts businesses “to do your own research.”

She says the department, with its enterprise-zone tools, could prove vital to future arts or cultural districts: “This is about how we attract more people and business to our downtown to drive more money downtown.”

For now, while Newton wonders about effective leadership with a focused goal, Flynn says she stakes her hopes on Mayor Jones' team and Bryan's work representing them.

Notably, Jones attended the national Mayor's Institute on City Design, a National Endowment for the Arts program last summer. His attendance, as Cameron says, is a prequalifier to receiving large grants of as much as $250,000. Bryan met with endowment representatives Feb. 1 to discuss the matter and hopes the city might qualify for that grant, which would be awarded before July 1.

Bryan says he's pleased to see conversation and healthy debate among those who listened to Cameron at Quirk. “Right now, CultureWorks' position is that we want to be a catalyst for anyone in the city who has an interest in an arts district,” Bryan says, calling questions of geography “premature.”

“We think it's important that all those districts be at the table,” he says, noting that many are not only separate districts, but also are represented by different City Council districts, and “you can't pass something with one vote on City Council.”


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