New arts district created by City Council will spur economic development

Richmond now has an official arts district. Find out just how big it is and what it means for downtown revitalization and development.

Art exhibit

On Tuesday night, City Council passed an ordinance that creates an Arts and Cultural District. Councilman Charles Samuels (2nd District), a principal supporter and author of the ordinance, said “we want to support the arts.” He added that the new arts district is “a great first step” toward community and economic revitalization. The ordinance created two art districts: a large one that will contain many existing attractions, and a smaller one that will be the focus of specific incentives to overcome existing blight and building vacancies.

“This is nothing but good,” said Scott Garnett, board member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), and realtor with One South Realty Group. “We are a creative town,” said Garnett. “I think we’re finally starting to embrace that.” Doing so has taken years.

In early fall of 2009, Councilman Samuels spoke with a group of people that wanted an arts district in Richmond. Samuels agreed and encouraged a “series of meetings in 2010” to discuss district plans. Among the key participants were members of Culture Works, an arts advocacy group, and Jon Baliles of the city’s Department of Planning and Development Review and co-organizer of the recent RVA Street Art Festival, along with the DNA.

As talks progressed, Samuels said two camps emerged. The first wanted a smaller, walkable area much like the current makeup of the city’s First Fridays Art Walk. The second, which included Mayor Jones, wanted a large district spanning over a mile. The mayor’s support for a larger arts district came from a desire to create a marketable facet of Richmond travel and tourism–the larger the arts district, the more marketable it became. Those that supported a more compact district say more concentrated development would combat the area’s considerable blight. Samuels believes that the new arts district addresses the desires of both camps.

The ordinance creates a large arts district that Samuels estimates covers 80 total blocks. It encompasses the Richmond Ballet, Hippodrome, Jefferson Hotel, and the proposed VCU contemporary art building, among others. “It has every type of art,” said Samuels. “It’s great for marketing because you have all these attractions.”

Garnett said the city-funded marketing that will come is the “biggest aspect” of the arts district. “You’ve got so many smaller galleries that aren’t able to market [themselves]…We’re leveraging the big boys to help the small boys.”

He mentioned that the DNA is already in talks with a local marketing firm to develop a “really concise, effective marketing strategy” and that an announcement will come soon. He hopes that the marketing campaign will attract more than just people.

Garnett said that he thinks the area needs a “serious retailer,” one that “caters to what the needs of the people are.” He mentioned Target. He said that the chain has already developed store designs that thrive in an urban setting. With an abundance of residents and students living in the Fan, Manchester, Church Hill, and downtown, Garnett said a Target would attract many people. The absence of major retailer in the city forces residents to travel to Willow Lawn or Short Pump, all beyond city boundaries. “Once that big anchor lands, businesses will thrive because of it.”

In addition to the marketing component, the arts district ordinance establishes loan fund rebates, special grants, and other incentives for qualifying individuals and businesses.

The ordinance also contains a provision that establishes a smaller arts district within the larger territory. This smaller area includes a section that runs from Belvidere to 2nd Street, and Grace to Marshall streets, typically thought of as the First Fridays Art Walk boundaries. Councilman Samuels said that qualifying businesses and individuals can expect “regulatory fee rebates” and “expedited permit reviews.” The incentives will be available from July 1, 2012 until June 30, 2017.

Garnett said that an internal analysis of restaurants in this smaller district net approximately $300,000-$500,000 annually in food tax to the city. Adding additional restaurants and storefronts not only enriches the area, making it a viable destination, but also makes sound financial sense. City Council agrees, noting the proposed fiscal impact in the ordinance:

”The proposed incentives carry costs for the City, however, these costs are expected to be greatly offset by the estimated increased tax revenue resulting from new and rehabilitated commercial and residential property; and from additional spending in local restaurants, eateries, galleries, performance venues and other businesses locating in the District as a result of an increased number of persons residing in and visiting the District.”

“It has the opportunity to become a real thriving community,” said Samuels. He cites the rampant blight and vacancies as an obstruction to community and economic development. “If we’re ever going to move Richmond forward,” he said “you have to confront the issues there.”

photo of Vadis Turner’s “Bonfire” installation by Leah Small

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

16 comments on New arts district created by City Council will spur economic development

  1. I hope “arts district” isn’t limited to restaurants and visual art galleries. There needs to also be a revitalization of music venues in this area. There are far too few places that have live music on a regular basis because of the city/state’s encroachment in the form of admissions taxes and noise ordinances. Will these be relaxed in the new arts district? I hope so, but remain skeptical.

  2. wren on said:

    Ha! Of course the City is banking on increased tax revenue from restaurants in this district, especially since they didn’t allow the expiration of the additional 1% Meal Tax that was added to fund CenterStage.

  3. @Wren – I think that the Meal Tax has the potential to become a not insignificant issue in the upcoming local elections.

  4. A major component of the original proposal developed by the community – made up of First Fridays participating venues – and which was originally backed by Councilman Samuels, was the inclusion of a waiver of the 7% Admission Tax on nonprofits located in the designated area. This benefit would have helped existing organizations of any size and attracted new creative entities to the area, building on the arts and cultural designation. What’s included in the ordinance now will help mostly investors with large pocketbooks of any scope, which has already attracted contention from other areas of town.

    And while Downtown can certainly benefit from some basic retail establishments, say goodbye to the unique nature of the neighborhood with the addition of a Target.

  5. Gene Harris on said:

    Maybe I’m too naive and idealistic, but it’s such a pity that most public discussion of the arts revolves around economic issues -marketing, commerce, etc. That’s not the reason art exists.

  6. Scott Burger on said:

    Gene, I agree, but this is what you get when the government gets involved in art. In the background of this whole thing is the very questionable public investment in theaters.

  7. Target? Really? People are moving back into cities to get away from the big box sprawl of suburban hell. Hopefully a market analysis will reveal that there is not enough soccer moms downtown to support a Target. Let’s focus on opportunities for small business, alternate transportation, accessible parking, infrastructure improvements, and above all… ART! Designating an arts district is a positive step. Throwing public money at it however, may be putting the cart before the horse.

  8. joe on said:

    There NOT talking about a big box target but a smaller store that would be in an existing building. This type of target and wal mart have been done in bigger urban areas. It will fit in to the existing scale of development. It will create foot traffic on the street that can help the whole area. The target was just thrown out as an example of the kind of retail that might be good in the area. But of couse you people over react as usually. How about being support instead of the constant negativity.
    Theres nothing wrong with public investment in theatres if its good for the area.

  9. lasingh on said:

    I don’t see what’s wrong with having a Target in the city… It’d be nice to not have to drive to Willow Lawn or Short Pump. Also, I wouldn’t miss the local character of Pants Plus or that fish fry place terribly. Just saying.

  10. I was excited, until I saw the word Target. As if parking and traffic weren’t already a huge downtown concern. Didn’t they create a highway for a reason?
    I’m all for additional performance venues, though.

  11. Scott on said:

    Ask people in other cities what they think of having the compact walmarts, targets etc, or ask the English how they feel about Tesco moving into their mom and pop shop areas. Those stores do NOT help anybody but themselves and will not do anything to help the city.

  12. Scott G on said:

    The target that I mentioned is smaller version that they have done in other urban locations, such as Seattle, San Francisco,Boston Chicago, Miami and Washington DC. They range from 60,000 to 100,000 sq. ft. and they focus more on the needs of the urban shopper. Currently, there are over 32000 VCU Students who take there tax dollars over the city line to Henrico County for there needs, not to mention all of the people living in the Bottom, Churchhill, Manchester, the Fan and the Northside. By bringing a national retailer in,
    whether it be Target or someone else, you are able to take care of a whole city block of blight in one feel swoop, as well as add more foottraffic to the street and increase the tax base. With increased tax revenues, the city can start focusing more money into the district helping out the arts and the business communities within it.

  13. Zach on said:

    Scott G is the man.

    National chain retailers are the new reality of our country. This is true in cities, suburbs, and rural areas. A Lowe’s on the edge of town kills the local hardware store on Main St. Panera and Starbucks take over New York City. This is not something that is going to change anytime soon.

    Understanding this, who among you will argue against opening a popular store in an existing historic building downtown? Who among you will argue against the new foot traffic in an otherwise blighted? Who will argue against new tax revenue for the City, which can be spent on services we all need?

    Those of you who will fight a Target are fighting the improvement and progress of our City. Instead, engage in that process and make sure we do it the right way.

  14. Scott Burger on said:

    I am not fighting a new Target or new development, but, mark my words, I will fight more corporate welfare, whether it be for Center Stage or a national retail chain. We need public funds to go to public entities, not private ones. ‘Economic Development’ should not mean handouts to corporations. People need to keep in mind just how much money has already been wasted and the overall history. Broad Street CDA, anyone?

  15. I think referring to gallery owners as “the community” (though I realize Ms. Newton sees things this way, after her dismissal of creating space for African American children at First Fridays) speaks to the heart of the problem with this entire concept. Jackson Ward has been a center for black culture, art, music, and business for almost 100 years, but that isn’t good enough for the city or the current crop of university-based artists or entrepreneurs. If a discussion about “blight” doesn’t involve mention of racism or include the opinions of long-time residents (who form the actual community of Jackson Ward) then it isn’t a real conversation at all, and seems only to illustrate the issue with all the “improvements” Richmond has made. Improvements for whom, and at whose expense? And, more importantly, why?

  16. Tristram on said:

    When have the “big boys” ever helped the “small boys”? How often have they instead quashed them under their might corporate foot? Target is going to revitalize Richmond into an art town? Nonsense. Richmond already is an art town. An organic art town. All this is is an attempt to exploit it, and doing so will destroy Richmond creativity at it’s organic level.

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