Thursday, February 4, 2010

Harrisonburg's Arts District: Notes from the ArtWorks for Virginia Conference

Last week I attended portions of the ArtWorks for Virginia conference, including four sessions on creating an arts district. Two were for the a statewide audience; two were for Richmonders.  My conference summary article appeared in the Times-Dispatch. Here are some additional notes on the session with Harrisonburg's Brian Shull. 
  • Shull is happy about the fact that the James Madison University campus is included in the arts district. He sees JMU's near-finished $90 million performing arts center (image, above) as a complement to the downtown district. Parking is free inside the district; someone asked about JMU students taking up all the parking. "That's a good problem to have," Shull said first, then said, "We're looking at ways to alleviate that." Later he said that the existence of the district has helped JMU be part of the life of the town.
  • Parks inside Harrisonburg's arts district were rehabbed with private funding but are maintained by the city.
  • Shull touted a large new "upscale apartments" building right near the center square. (image, right) Someone later asked about affordable housing for artists. (This is an element of arts districts in some cities across the country but by no means all.) Shull said, "no specific housing for artists yet."
  • The tax incentives used to create the district are "not an entitlement" Shull said, referring to the time limits on the incentives. "Don't put too much emphasis on incentives," he said later. "Local government should help [arts orgs and artists] get over the hump, then let marketing kick in. I would have put more emphasis on marketing at the start."
  • He said there were no big tiffs about where the district's lines were drawn, who did or didn't get defined as an "arts organization" for the purpose of receiving benefits.
  • Someone asked him if he had anything negative to say about the process or the result. He said no.
  • Harrisonburg "has not done a thorough economic impact analysis yet."
  • The Two Most Important Things I think Richmond can learn from Harrisonburg, despite our differences in size (Hburg plus Rockingham County is 120,000):
    • Have a big plan, but don't expect everything to get done at once. Nearly 10 years into this, Hburg is still plugging along, working on streetscape projects, trying to get more retail into the district.
    • A city doesn't automatically benefit from an arts district. It must be marketed, and this is most effectively done when the arts council, the tourism board and the downtown renaissance group cooperate (or whatever the equivalent orgs are in one's own city). There were audible gasps in the audience (from Richmonders?) when Shull revealed that city government gives the arts council $40,000 a year for marketing. Rockingham County has given around $25,000/year. Marketing includes, of course, promoting the district to local visitors and tourists--but also to businesses and industry and grantmakers.

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