Cultural District: A Guide to Set Up

The toolbox for neighborhood revitalization is constantly growing. For example, in the past decade, craft breweries have taken on an important role in drawing people into neighborhoods that were abandoned for decades, such as warehousing districts that offer physical spaces that are ideal for brewing and hosting patrons. Breweries are acting as catalysts for larger community revitalization across the country, often acting as a harbinger for other private investment into the area.

Similarly, prevalence of the arts tends to be an indicator of a neighborhood that has the right elements for attracting investment. Across the US, cultural districts are being established as an economic development tool to support and promote local artists, while also reinvigorating the build environment and bringing vitality back into neighborhoods. While the establishment of a strong arts district can set the stage for a flurry of development, maintaining safe, affordable spaces for artists is critical to maintaining a balance between revitalization and organic growth.

According to Americans for the Arts, cultural districts, or arts districts, are “well-organized, labeled areas of a city in which a high concentration of cultural facilities and programs serve as the main anchor of attraction.”1 These districts provide a critical place of cultural consumption including art galleries, dance clubs, theaters, art cinemas, music venues and public squares for performance.

Source: Visit Denver, ArtsFwd

Community benefits vary from one district to another as cultural districts can vary immensely in purpose and structure. In general, the benefits of cultural districts include increase in property values, tourism, incomes, employment, and turnover. They also create places for educational and social development.2 Local artists, long-term residents, and local businesses are among the most impacted by these districts.

Necessary partners for setting up a cultural district

The development of a cultural district can span over decades, with stakeholders changing throughout that time period. In the early stages, local artists are an intricate part of formulating ideas around the goals of the cultural district by identifying the needs and desires of the creative community. However, the artists can’t do it alone, establishing a cultural district requires the input and resources of the wider community. The process includes a network of stakeholders, including small businesses, nonprofits, art organizations, policymakers and community advocates of all ages. Large local support creates a degree of stability to warrant an ongoing process for development, and will assist leaders of the movement in forging ahead as stakeholders shift throughout the lengthy process.

Location, location, location

The success of a cultural district is dependent on utilizing the appropriate location and available physical space. Districts should be located within a downtown or community center area with a focus on main streets, historic centers, and business improvement districts. These areas will most likely offer the most walkable environments to ensure heavy foot traffic that will draw in community members and visitors alike. Once the location is confirmed, streets should be demarcated with signs or distinct public art to clearly identify and celebrate local shops, studios, and events.  

Steps for establishing a cultural district

Once a community decides to pursue a cultural district, an ongoing iterative process with stakeholders will drive the project forward. Steps for developing a cultural district include:

  • Create partnerships: Partnerships that support project development include nonprofit art organizations, local artists, local government, small business associations, real estate developers, etc. These partnerships aid in funding and project support.
  • Develop an arts district plan: Planning is essential to develop a vision of what the arts district aims to achieve and how the community can achieve it. Planning can be an informal or formal planning process. A formal planning process, including vision statement, goals and actions, is often required for districts that are seeking to be designated by the state. An informal process can include community conversations, surveys, and community assessments to develop an overall understanding of the arts district vision. 
  • Secure funding: Funding to support development can be secured through corporate support, special taxing districts, business improvement districts, state funding and implementing a tax increment financing (TIF) district3. Funding is also available at the national level through Federal Historic Rehabilitation tax credits, Small Business Associations loans, USDA rural Development grants, and Community Development Block Grants.
  • Create a marketing plan: Marketing is vital for a sustainable, viable cultural district. Engaging the community and visitors through social media, festivals, events, and marketing campaigns helps to enhance community support and ensure use of the space. The Pittsburgh Cultural District is famed as a successful model for economic development and arts district success, attracting over 2 million visitors each day. The Pittsburgh Cultural District list detailed information regarding all of its events on their webpage. Much of the districts economic success can be attributed to the Pittsburgh Film Office(PFO) which markets the greater southwestern Pennsylvania region as a prime location for production and have drawn in over $1 billion to the region. As part of its marketing efforts, the PFO provides film crew and vendors with detailed information on the region’s incentives as well as film locations and facilities.
  • Develop or utilize cultural district legislation: Certain states and local jurisdictions have legislation that provides incentives and improvements for these districts. For example, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have legislature incentivizing the development of art districts. Rhode Island recognized the benefit of arts districts to tourism and increased revenue and grants sales tax exemptions for sales by writers, composers and artists. Massachusetts has several grant programs that support arts/cultural and community collaborative initiatives as well.
  • Hire the experts, but always draw on local expertise: Choose the right consultant team to work with the community. This will include experts in planning, marketing, funding, and the arts. Consultants aid in creating a clear direction for the cultural district by identifying overall goals of the district and setting up mission and vision statements that align with those goals. In addition, the planning process can include various aspects of physical design, artist activity, economic development opportunities, and cultural tourism. Consultants act as facilitators, creating focus through development of a strategic plan that builds on current strengths, addressing potential challenges, and encouraging innovation. 4

Don’t forget about inclusivity

While arts districts often bring much needed investment to communities, the popularity of these areas often place upward pressure on residential rental rates and prices for studio spaces, driving out the very population that the district was meant to showcase in the first place. To address these concerns, some existing arts districts have introduced policies to ensure that artists remain in the art district.

The Los Angeles downtown Arts District’s real estate boom has magnified issues of affordability and gentrification, slowly but surely driving out the creative individuals that originally sparked interest in the area. To keep the “arts” in the arts district, one housing developer in downtown LA hosted a competition for working artists to move in free of charge to promote art and authenticity within a new residential building.5

Measuring the benefits

As a cultural district evolves, it is important to measure the impact it has on the local community and its economy. The Otis College of Arts and Design publishes the “Otis Report on the Creative Economy”, an annual report on LA’s arts district that details positive fiscal benefits of creative industries in California. The report includes breakdowns of creative industries and statistics on their economic impacts. Another report, “Creative New York” offers recommendations for developing policies that mitigate the costs for artists in urban environments, including successful programs providing affordable rent to artists.6 Other recommendations include access to more collaborative working spaces, preserving office spaces for creative businesses and artists, leveraging real estate assets to achieve affordability workspace, and developing housing for artists. Making the benefits of arts known and incorporating inclusive policies can help to sustain an arts district and ensure space is secured for artists regardless of rising rates.

[1] “National Cultural Districts Exchange Toolkit.” Americans for the Arts, 8 Sept. 2016, www.americansforthearts.org/by-program/reports-and-data/toolkits/nationa....

[2] Borrup, Tom. “Cultural Districts: Bottom-up and Top-down Drivers.” National Cultural Districts Exchange 2014.

[3] Rules for TIF districts are dependent on each state and some state sdo not allow the use of TIF for arts related development.  

[4] “Developing and Advancing a Cultural District.” Americans for the Arts, 8 Sept. 2016, www.americansforthearts.org/by-program/reports-and-data/toolkits/nationa....

[5] “Change the Name of the Arts District to the Luxury District.” KCRW, https://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/there-goes-the-neighborhood/chan....

[6] “Now that artists can’t afford the Arts District, L.A. needs to rethink its role as a creative city.” LA Times, 8 Dec. 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-dtla-develop...

 

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