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.

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