For more than 25 years the idea of designating downtown as an arts and cultural district has ignited the imaginations of business and property owners, nonprofits and others who envision such economic-development initiatives invigorating our long-neglected city center. Simply put, it is a logical way to showcase our city's rich culture and boost business.
I led Curated Culture to pursue this concept in 2003 due to the growing success of our First Fridays Art Walk program and the ongoing improvements downtown. Throughout these eight years, I have worked with a diverse group of businesses and organizations. Our constant pursuit always has been to create a strong, realistic plan to support the unique needs of Richmond's creative and small business communities and encourage destination marketing.
It comes as a disappointment not to be able to support the mayor's current proposal to create the city's first arts and cultural district, but his plan lacks the elements necessary to reach these goals.
Since its inception in 2009, the Historic Downtown Arts and Cultural District Task Force has been bringing neighbors together to craft a plan that meets the desires of the community. We are an inclusive group, representing a mix of businesses such as Ghostprint Gallery, Lift Coffee Shop and the gallery Quirk; along with nonprofits 1708 Gallery, CenterStage Foundation, Gallery5 and Theatre IV. The task force also includes the Historic Jackson Ward Association and Venture Richmond.
Starting with a visioning process, we developed an action plan and timeline. We met with city officials and City Council representatives to determine new ideas. We also thoroughly researched arts and cultural districts around the region and across the country, investigating specific zoning laws and tax incentives.
Along the way, we collaborated with representatives from neighboring arts-centric areas of town, including Manchester, West Main Street, Court End and the Museum District. It was at monthly meetings convened by CultureWorks — Richmond's key cultural advocacy organization — that the city's broad cultural community thoroughly considered and eventually supported the task force's proposed ordinance.
By August, we were elated to submit our work to the city's Department of Economic Development for review.
The news that came from the city's economic officials in October was a surprise to everyone involved. Introduced was a new program, ArtBusiness Richmond, which would aim to assist downtown businesses by creating city micro loans and offering technical assistance. There was no mention, however, of our proposal or the community's input.
Still, what was even more surprising was Mayor Dwight Jones' announcement of the new Broad Street Arts and Cultural District in his state of the city address in February.
On the whole, the city's proposal for creating arts and cultural districts is in opposition to the community's interests. It's unusual because it separates the ordinance designating the district from the details of its management. The proposed ordinance before City Council only includes the boundaries, and the area that has been selected encompasses almost the entirety of downtown. This will be too large, however, to adequately promote the art galleries and businesses in the West Broad Street corridor and elsewhere.
There are no dedicated funds to market downtown as the region's growing cultural destination — a flaw that undermines the obvious intent of the proposed ordinance. Additionally, the city has chosen a name that excludes venues not in the Broad Street corridor, which is in contrast to what the downtown community wants. Last, it lacks real incentives to entice businesses and organizations to move downtown or assist those that call the area home.
In contrast, we suggested the district include incentives, such as a waiver to nonprofits on the long-debated 7-percent admissions tax, which would help organizations of all sizes. We also suggested exemptions on fees for water and sewer hook up, business licenses, rezoning applications and building permits, reasoning that these small incentives would give start-ups initial savings without significantly reducing city revenue.
The mayor's plan does include the opportunity to apply for loans for facade improvements, seek technical assistance at low cost to businesses and nonprofits, and the potential to seek low-interest financing. The document also falls short in that it is an administrative program and comes as a work in progress, so we really don't know what might come in the future.
Overall, it is fair to argue that the city's plan not only goes against the intent of the Virginia General Assembly, which in 2009 passed a law that gives localities the opportunity to create arts districts that offer financial incentives and tax breaks. Recognizing that what might work for Harrisonburg might not work for Richmond or Staunton, the General Assembly left these decisions to the community.
I, as well as my colleagues on the task force, applaud Jones' administration for being the first to acknowledge the importance of our arts and cultural community and its impact on the city's continued economic development. Regrettably, we can't support a plan that squanders opportunities and does not take the community's needs into consideration.
Richmond's arts and cultural community has spoken. Now it is time for the rest of the community to weigh in on this important initiative. I encourage you to contact your City Council representative before the next meeting of its Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee on April 19 and ask for an improved plan. Our vibrant creative community improves the city's quality of life and earns Richmond acclaim far and wide. It deserves a meaningful plan that honors and supports it for years to come. Sadly, this is not that plan. S
Christina E. Newton is director of Curated Culture and chairwoman of the historic downtown arts and cultural task force.
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