Developing a Cultural District Framework: The Role of Local and State Government

Posted by Ms. Meri Jenkins, Jul 30, 2013 0 comments

Meri Jenkins Meri Jenkins

Launched in 2011, the Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative addresses community revitalization, business development, new income generation, job growth, cultural tourism, the development of space for artists, and the preservation and rehabilitation of the state’s historic landmarks and cultural treasures. Seventeen diverse communities have achieved cultural district designation so far, and we have forty more in the pipeline.

In designing the initiative, we wanted to give cities and towns new tools and resources to strengthen local economies by focusing on their culturally rich downtowns and neighborhoods. We deliberately positioned local government at the center of our approach, and so it is the municipality that is the applicant. Local government has the authority to remove barriers that help foster and promote a cultural economic development agenda by changing or amending regulations, using their convening power to engage stakeholders, and providing capacity and focus.

Before submitting an application for designation, municipalities must pass a public resolution in support of the district and hold public hearings. To date, the majority of the seventeen municipalities that have won designation have passed a unanimous vote, a fascinating result in a state where local debate on myriad issues is often contentious. Even in our most cash strapped districts, some municipalities have also committed funds in support of this agenda.

And the legislation in support of cultural districts is designed to boost their efforts. Perhaps the most far reaching element of the bill is the following language: Executive branch agencies, constitutional offices and quasi-governmental agencies shall identify programs and services that support and enhance the development of cultural districts and ensure that those programs and services are accessible to such districts.

This means that other state agencies are available to discuss cultural district plans and whether their initiatives are appropriate for a district's plan of action. Some additional programs and services include: strategic community planning, marketing and promotion, historic property stewardship, way finding signage, open space programming, and economic development.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism; Mass Historic Commission; MA Department of Housing and Community Development; MA Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development; MA Department of Conservation and Recreation; MA Department of Transportation are engaged and involved. This partnership is new, but it is ground-breaking and we are encouraged. Their engagement represents a more cohesive approach to developing our state’s social and economic vitality. We are now working with our supporters in the Legislature to create added resources and incentives for our new cultural districts, drawing on the success of initiatives in Maryland, Louisiana, and other states. Track our progress!

The Massachusetts Cultural Council’s economic development work began more than 30 years ago. The Design and Development Program for the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, the Rural Design Assistance Program, the Governor's Design Awards Program, and the Cultural Facilities Technical Assistance Program were all funding programs run in the 1980s. The programs were eliminated in the state budget cuts of the late 1980s. It took another 10 years before the work began again in a different framework. Since 1997, the Council’s creative economy agenda has expanded and grown. With legislative support and an increase in funding, the MCC has funded 101 different projects involving more than 1,050 organizations – investing more than $11.5 million dollars in creative economy efforts throughout the Commonwealth through the Adams Arts program. The Cultural Facilities Fund has provided $55 million for nonprofit arts, history, and science building projects since 2007, in cultural districts and other communities where arts and culture play a key role in economic and community development. Today, alongside the Adams Program and the Cultural Facilities Fund, the MCC’s economic development portfolio consists of HireCulture, ArtistLink, and the Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative.

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