Guest Commentary: Why An Arts and Cultural District & Why Now?

September 6, 2012 3:00 PM0 comments

There has been a buzz about creating an arts and cultural district in the Little City for several years. Our progress has been slow and steady. In 2007 Falls Church was one of eight jurisdictions identified to establish arts and cultural districts in Virginia. In ’09 after a series of public conversations, the council appointed a task force to explore establishing an arts and culture district.

After formal adoption of the task force recommendations, C.A.T.C.H., an acronym for City of Arts, Theatre, Culture and History, the City’s humanities council was created. It has met over the last three years and helped facilitate increased communication among the arts and cultural organizations, established a central calendar and developed a (soon to be online) website to help promote local events and the City as a destination. In ’09 Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation and the graduate students of Virginia Tech, Urban Design Studio, Department of Urban Affairs and Planning completed a semester long design studio that examined establishing an arts and cultural district in Falls Church.

An arts and cultural district is a well-recognized, identified area of a city that has a high concentration of cultural facilities/organizations and programs to serve as an anchor of attraction. Cultural districts are usually geographically defined, and almost always help to ignite revitalization in its defined area. It helps to beautify and animate cities, provide employment, attract residents and tourists, enhance property values, expand the City’s tax base, and contribute to a creative, innovative environment.

In Falls Church, an organic arts and cultural district has emerged. The Tinner Hill Historic Site, which is the birthplace of the first rural branch of the NAACP in the nation (1915), the Henderson House, the Historic Falls Church, and Galloway United Methodist Church (and cemeteries) are all natural historic anchors for the district. Within the “district” concentration of arts organizations are Creative Cauldron and ArtSpace. Both continue to attract audiences from all over neighboring regions and garner awards for their outstanding programming.

I believe we need to create a real arts and culture district, with tax incentives and an infrastructure that helps to develop and maintain itself. There are three major developments currently proposed in the area and one the commercial property just completed. Several commercial properties in the vicinity have “For Sale” signs, making it is clear this area is prime for revitalization. Our planning and forethought to create our vision of an arts and culture district where new businesses can grow and flourish while meeting the needs of the current and new community, artists and various venues, needs to be begin now – not be an afterthought or appendage.

It is time to look at financial incentives and create an infrastructure with economic incentives and weight its fiscal impact in terms of any revenue losses for the city. Admissions taxes, tax credits, property tax credits, exemption on business licenses, or tax credits for artists and related businesses, and tax credits for improvements made to existing structures for arts purposes seem to make a minor impact on revenues for the city when looking long term gain.

We need to heighten visibility and foot traffic, create memorable streetscapes, artist studios, workspaces and/or window exhibits and public art. Traffic calming and traffic lights could make this area of the city walkable. Gateway features, maps, signage and other wayfinding assistance are needed. Tinner Hill’s award winning walking tour, Giving Voice, can help incorporate an urban trail that gives us a way to look at the past that combines with our present and future. Creating festival spaces will help to make the area a destination and reinforce the public’s image, and we could bring the Tinner Hill Blues Festival back to the district!

The most difficult task in establishing an arts and cultural district is creating civic pride. At the first small area development meeting for the S. Washington area more than 100 interested, passionate residents, business owners and stakeholders showed up to express their concern and make suggestions! Civic pride was clearly there! Civic pride creates an emotional connection between visitors and the community. It gives people a reason to fall in love with the Little City. . . over and over again. The charm of the Little City, is just that: It is little, it is walkable and has lots of hidden treasures. . . historic churches, civil war trail markers, the best blues festival in the region, charming pocket parks, and a city that deals with a sometimes less than pleasant past in a manner that creates dialogue while building a destination that we are all proud of. Our strategy should be to leverage our position as the Little City, with an arts and cultural district in an ethnically diverse urban area, to brand it as the home of national historic events, innovative arts experiences and cultural traditions that can’t be found anywhere else in the area.

Our message is direct: If you want to experience authentic history, arts, music, ideas and cuisine that draw from an evolving mix of cultures, come to the Little City, come to Falls Church!

 


Nikki Graves Henderson is Executive Director of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.


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