Another Wide River to Cross: Incentivizing an Arts District in Tallahassee
For this Blog Salon, I really had to stop and think about what would make Tallahassee a better place in general and for the arts.
While Tallahassee has been the butt of many jokes in films and television, it’s actually a very vibrant place with a lot going on. In addition to being the state capital, it is the home to Florida State University and Florida A&M University, both of which have accomplished performing and visual arts programs, and annual events like the Seven Days of Opening Nights Festival regularly bring in world-class artists that otherwise would not be found in cities of this size.
After talking with a coworker and comparing Tallahassee to similarly sized cities, however, it all made sense. We’re missing a river.
A natural landmark like a river or a lake near the center of a city creates an important focus point for developers and provides key elements to that city’s sense of place. Tallahassee is very spread out with a few different pockets of activity, but it lacks a centralized, pedestrian-friendly area to define it.
I’ve previously lived in Fargo and Iowa City. While smaller than Tallahassee, they both have pedestrian-friendly downtown areas near a river where businesses, restaurants, and the arts are thriving. Digging a river in Tallahassee would probably be a poor choice. Thankfully efforts are already underway to create a centralized destination district that can bring together the city’s various communities through arts and culture.
Almost ten years ago, the city started work on the Gaines Street Revitalization Plan to create “a connection between the two universities close to downtown that would be the hub of arts and culture in Tallahassee.” And, lo and behold, it’s not far from a small drainage ditch and railroad that run through town right where you imagine a river would be.
While projects like this typically use arts and culture as a means for revitalization and economic development, its long-term success will depend on continuing to nurture the arts while the project moves forward and after completion.
Here are some reasons why that’s important and how it can be done:
- Art creates a sense of place, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation defines as “those things that add up to a feeling that a community is a special place, distinct from anywhere else.” Therefore, art should be visible and audible throughout the district. Visual art should be outdoors and in windows while music emanates from businesses and street musicians busk on the sidewalks.
- The arts can bring a city’s diverse populations together if diversity in the area is actively emphasized and encouraged. I’m not only talking about cultural diversity but also physical and market diversity, with for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations, old and new buildings, big and small performance venues, upscale restaurants and street vendors.
- Residents make a community vibrant and are invested in its success, so there needs to be affordable housing for working artists and musicians in the district. It will be important that as property values increase that working artists are not forced out. How Artist Space Matters, a case study of three Minnesota districts, explains how important it is to keep artists in the area.
None of these things will magically happen. It will take incentives and policies at the local level, so options are limited but still possible. Create a policy for busking so that the police don’t push out musicians playing for money, use tax credits to encourage repurposing old structures, and keep property taxes on artists’ studios and homes from increasing when property values go up. As always, partner with the local arts agency to ensure that the full breadth of the arts community is involved and aware of what is happening.
If successful, Tallahassee’s incentivized arts district could be a capital example for all of Florida. While numerous cities have arts districts across the state, there is no statewide system that connects or incentivizes them. However, with Gaines Street’s close proximity to the state’s Capitol Building, legislators from throughout Florida will visit and benefit from this arts district each year.
According to last year’s National Governors Association report, 12 states have formal cultural district policies while numerous others have authorized local entities to promote them with tax incentives. If Florida’s policy makers can experience the benefits of an arts district firsthand, perhaps a statewide system can be implemented.
Stressing arts and culture in Tallahassee’s new “destination district” by adding financial incentives to draw artists and arts organizations will make the district vibrant and successful, and it can then serve as an example for other districts across the state.
While many in Tallahassee already complain about the amount of time this project is taking, as long as we keep it focused on arts and culture it will be a worthwhile endeavor. Plus, it’s better than digging a river.
(Editor's Note: To learn more about Arts, Entertainment & Cultural Districts consider coming to Pittsburgh for a Preconference on the subject just before the 2013 Americans for the Arts Annual Convention this June!)