Rethinking Cultural Districts for Small Towns in Small States
Using cultural districts as a structure for arts and cultural activities is a central catalyst for revitalization efforts that build better communities. Many states and urban areas have setup structures, often through legislation, that promote cultural districts as a way to build vibrant communities that lead to social and economic development.
Getting to the end outcome - the arts playing a leading role in revitalization efforts - is a necessary endeavor, but setting up structures in the same way as urban areas may not be the best approach for a rural state like Wyoming.
Wyoming is one of the largest states geographically, but has the smallest population of any state with 575,000 people. Wyoming is better categorized as frontier or even remote. The largest populated city in Wyoming is the state capital Cheyenne, with a population just over 61,000 people. Of the 99 incorporated municipalities, only about half have populations over 1,000 people, and only a handful of those have a population over 10,000.
How can small populated states invest in the outcomes of cultural districts?
In Wyoming, the Wyoming Arts Council has joined in a strategic partnership with Wyoming Main Street which manages the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program. Located inside the Wyoming Business Council, the Wyoming Main Street program assists Wyoming communities of various sizes and resource levels with their downtown revitalization efforts. Between fully certified and affiliate communities, Wyoming has fifteen active communities in their Main Street Program.
These downtown areas represent the city center, and in some cases, the entire city. Wyoming Main Street communities, in almost every case, would mirror what cultural districts would look like in Wyoming. Instead of re-creating the wheel, setting up another bureaucratic system for certification, and using staffing and financial resources, the Wyoming Arts Council has focused its efforts on working in collaboration with Main Street to have the arts be a part of revitalization efforts.
Although a marriage of convenience in many ways, the collaboration between the arts and Main Street is one of great synergy. Main Street is based on a Four-Point Approach of organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring. As outlined below, this approach to community development is a great fit for how those of us in the arts can approach building stronger communities.
1) Organization. Having artists involved in organizational structure brings a different frame of reference to the table, one that comes from a creative viewpoint. Additionally, artists volunteer in their communities, giving both their time and experience.
2) Promotion. Arts and cultural events help to promote a positive image of a community. Adding these types of events to Main Street initiatives will make downtown areas stronger, driving more economic development.
3) Design. Artists understand design, and thrive in making beautiful spaces. Having artists involved with city planning, development, and engagement, will create innovative ideas and support for community projects.
4) Economic Restructuring. The arts are an industry on their own, but combined with other successful businesses; the arts can help bring in a diversified set of consumers. Having a strong arts and cultural presence adds to the livability of a community, making it a sought out community to live in, not just for artists, but all occupations. Additionally, areas with strong cultural and arts institutions drive cultural tourism, which adds another dimension to an already diversified economic blueprint.
Although collaborative projects can be simple in scope, the implementation of the projects serves many different outcomes. For example, art bike racks that beautify a downtown district while clearing cluttered bikes on public sidewalks, promoting biking instead of driving which leaves more parking for out of town visitors. Mural projects are another great example: they add to beautification efforts and engage the local arts community, while turning an unappealing space on the side of a rundown building into a sought out destination.
Although two fairly traditional ideas, these types of dual purpose arts collaborations are endless. By having artists involved in the Main Street four point approach, downtown areas in small rural states can focus on the outcomes of cultural districts to help build stronger, more beautiful communities without being forced to re-create the wheel. The Wyoming Arts Council is excited about growing this sustainable partnership with Wyoming Main Street.