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The Cultural District Project
A designated cultural district for downtown is in the works, and it could help set the next stage for development in the area
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
For the past several months, a collection of Fort Wayne organizations — the Convention and Visitors Bureau; Arts United; and the Downtown Improvement District — have been meeting with a group of concerned stakeholders to create what could be an important tool in the next stage of Fort Wayne’s downtown development.
The plan: take advantage of state legislation that would designate a big chunk of the downtown area as a “cultural district.” Establishing a “cultural district” downtown wouldn’t qualify it for any money — state or otherwise — yet, but it does put all the pieces in place for any possible grants or money that might be available later on. “What we’re really doing is trying to make sure we have everything possible lined up so that we can take advantage of whatever money might be there in the future,” says Jim Sparrow, Executive Director of Arts United.
Basically, they’re trying to get a few steps ahead of the process. Whenever an idea like a cultural district was floated in the past, those involved found themselves hampered by not having done their homework. “Before, what we had found was, great ideas, but we didn’t have any of the groundwork taken care of so that we could move quickly,” Sparrow says. “This was an attempt to say ‘we’re already starting to see pockets of a ‘cultural district’ in place; let’s make sure we have all the infrastructure to take advantage of whatever might come down the pike’.”
Sparrow adds that possible future funding could be anything that might allow for economic development, funds for the creation and maintenance of public arts projects, or something which might help spur “creative industry” in the area — a broad term that could include anything from art galleries to marketing firms to any kind of cottage industry that “creates something.” “That’s the way it’s loosely outlined in terms of the initial legislation,” Sparrow says. “Ideally, they’d like to see a variety of stuff down here, and so would we.”
As far as the immediate benefits to Fort Wayne, designating part of downtown a cultural district means we get put on the state register, and perhaps get some tourist dollars towards marketing the fact that Fort Wayne has a cultural district.
But many of the principals involved emphasize that they’re trying to look at the big picture, trying to anticipate possible opportunities in the (hopefully) near future. Charles O’Connor, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at IPFW and the Chair of the Cultural District Project, says that establishing a designated cultural district in downtown serves a number of purposes. “The first is that it helps those of us who believe in downtown and the arts to form an advocacy group that’s legitimized by the city and by the state, so that if we do apply for grants or any other kind of funding should it become available, we have our act together, we’ve established ourselves.”
O’Connor’s second point is that having a strong, cultural downtown is, obviously, good for the economic development of the city and good for tourism. This is hardly news, not even in Fort Wayne, but those involved see a designated cultural district as an opportunity to place a renewed emphasis on the economic development factors of the arts. “I know a lot of people perhaps may not think of the arts as a top priority in tough economic times,” O’Connor acknowledges. “But we know that if you look at the most vibrant cities in the country, the kind of cities people want to move to, the kind of cities new companies want to situate themselves in, they are cities strong on the arts. You’re seeing all kinds of dynamic things happening in a lot of these mid-sized cities. I think it can help attract economic opportunities to this region.”
Jim Sparrow agrees. “Many discussions I’ve had in the past have sort of centered around the arts as a ‘quality of life’ issue, these sort of high level discussions,” he says. “But on another level, the arts are economic catalyst points, especially when you deal with things like the trickle down of creative industry and the gallery districts that also become restaurant and small businesses. You start to build a neighborhood through that connection.”
Overall, having many of the arts organizations and businesses formalize under a sort of cultural district umbrella lends their work an extra degree of credibility and recognition. “We hope that by identifying ourselves as a cultural entity that we can get more support for the arts,” Charles O’Connor says. “The main thing is to show that we can work together collaboratively. If the day comes when there are maybe state dollars or a grant, it’s so much better if you go in as a group.”
Indeed, if there are a couple factors that might mark this particular cultural district project as different from somewhat similar efforts in the past, it’s the group’s focus and the different organizations participating. In addition to the DID, the CVB and Arts United, the project’s board consists of a much larger group of stakeholders that Jim Sparrow says includes other “cultural assets and anchors,” artists who would benefit from the project. They’ve also been working a little with the City of Fort Wayne; it’s the city that has to file the application with the Indiana Arts Commission for the designation.
Bringing so many different people to the table allowed the group to work through what could have been a major early hindrance in getting the project off the ground — namely, the actual physical boundaries of the cultural district. The state calls for a defined geographical area. For management and inclusionary purposes, the board decided that the boundaries of the Downtown Improvement District seemed ideal. “Instead of there being, for example, three blocks as a cultural district, we’d offer a broader definition which fits within the state guidelines,” Sparrow says. “The blocks of the DID are sort of the hub of development, because most of the cultural assets are there.”
“When you hear the phrase ‘cultural district,’ I think people immediately think ‘okay, there’s a two-block area that’s going to have galleries’,” Sparrow adds. “Not that anyone was opposed to that, but where does that go? Basically, we wanted to get away from being in it (the cultural district), or out of it. This way, we included a lot of the major assets and made everyone feel like ‘okay, we’re in.’ We wanted all the cultural partners to feel like it would benefit all of them.”
The DID’s boundaries encompass a sizeable area of downtown — St. Joe’s Hospital on the west, clay street on the east, the railroad tracks on the south, and the river on the north. Not only is it an area that includes some prominent establishments like the Art Museum, Art Link, and the Arts United Center, but also includes several restaurants and bars that, ideally, would add some more “life” to the area. Furthermore, the boundaries of the DID sort of serve as a “hub” to a wider downtown area, like the Broadway and Wells corridors. “We settled on the borders of the DID, which isn’t to say we can’t grow from there,” says O’Connor. “But we had to start somewhere, because the criteria for becoming a cultural district states that we have to have a defined geographical area; it just can’t be the whole city.”
The deadline for the application is June, and those involved feel very positive that it will go through. Words that seem to pop up a lot when discussing the benefits of a designated cultural district are “spark,” “seed,” “incentive”… those synonyms for “catalyst” that might cause anyone following Fort Wayne’s downtown redevelopment to experience a sense of déjà vu. If there’s any such cynicism surrounding the cultural district project, it isn’t showing. And why should it? It doesn’t cost anything to apply for the designation, and it doesn’t cost anything to get it. More importantly, one day — hopefully soon — money and grants for the arts will become available again. Fort Wayne should be prepared to receive a little of that when it does.