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F.C. Urged to Establish ‘Arts District’ With Tax Incentives

A scarcely-known resource provided to the City of Falls Church by the Virginia State Legislature in 2005 drew keen interest Tuesday as leaders of five area arts organizations addressed the monthly luncheon of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce.

The City became one of only a handful in the state authorized to form an “arts and cultural district,” replete with tax and other incentives when Del. Bob Hull, in consultation with then F.C. Assistant Manager Wyatt Shields, added its name to a short list of new applicants during the 2005 legislative session.

In the course of exchanges between the spokespersons for the regional arts non-profits and Chamber members Tuesday, this obscure fact came to light, along with the fact that the City has never taken advantage of the opportunity.

When asked for a show of hands on whether the City should establish an “arts and cultural district,” over three-dozen local business leaders filling the room at the Italian Café raised their hands.

F.C. Chamber Chief Gary LaPorta stressed that the informal and spontaneous show of hands did not constitute any kind of an official vote, but the sentiment was clear following the speakers who, among other things, showed studies documenting the positive economic impact of arts institutions in any community.

Ann Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Fairfax County, presented a summary of the positive economic impact of non-profit arts and culture organizations and their audiences in Fairfax County. She said that the compelling case made in the 2005 study helped to ensure that the County budget contribution to her organization would not drop, despite the especially tough fiscal times this year.

Laura Hull, CEO of the Falls Church-based Creative Cauldron, a non-profit that provides educational workshops in the performing and visual arts for children and adults, said that her organization is working with Falls Church Arts to secure and build out a modest “flex-art space” at the new Pearson Square project on S. Maple Street, that was proffered to the City in the original negotiations to permit the construction of the project.

She said the space would be used as an “incubator” for arts of all types in the City and region, and that more backing from the City is needed to bring it to pass.

If the F.C. City Council takes up the opportunity to create an “arts and cultural district,” it could utilize, according to Virginia law, a reduction in permit and user fees, and any type of gross receipts tax for up to 10 years. It could also provide regulatory flexibility in such a designated zone, which could include special zoning, permit process reform, exemption from ordinances and other incentives binding on the City for 10 years.

These incentives would open up the community and its existing arts organizations to receive additional investment and funding resources to establish, among other things, a permanent infrastructure for the arts in a designated area.

In addition to Falls Church, only the independent cities of Alexandria, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Petersburg and Winchester and the towns of Blacksburg and Chincoteague are authorized by the state to establish such districts. Blacksburg is reportedly in the process of creating an arts district in conjunction with the construction of a major new performing arts center at Virginia Tech.

In addition to Rodriguez and Hull, representatives of three thriving arts organizations in Falls Church spoke at the Chamber luncheon Tuesday, including former Vice Mayor Marty Meserve of the Falls Church Arts, Tom Gittins of First Friday and Nancy McSlarrow of Choralis.

All had impressive stories of their growth and aspirations, all having been established in the City since 2000.

Falls Church Arts, founded in 2004, is currently partnering with Creative Cauldron for a year-long series of cultural events called “The DaVinci Passport.” It is preparing its annual all-member art show and sale, with an opening reception at the Don Beyer Volvo showroom scheduled for Friday, March 28 from 7 to 9 p.m.

Gittins founded First Friday in 2001, and the monthly event, held on the first Friday of every month beginning around 6 p.m. at various downtown Falls Church locations, has attracted participation from more and more artists and businesses.

Choralis was founded in 2000 and includes two choral groups, the main chorus with up to 90 voices and a smaller chamber group known as Echo. Operating out of the Falls Church Presbyterian, it offers youth scholarships and a week-long summer youth festival. Its next major concert is a performance of Haydn’s “Creation” on June 27 at the NOVA Alexandria-based Schlesinger Auditorium.

A Chamber spokesman noted Tuesday that the Chamber now has a unique opportunity to help shape the look of the newly-approved City Center to encourage creative architecture, quality public art and open spaces conducive to the arts.

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