City explores options for development of arts district

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January 26, 2010

4:29 AM

The City of Williamsburg is known for its history and its higher education. Now city leaders are hoping it will be known for its arts as well.

Williamsburg has created a focus group of various city residents and invested $12,500 to explore the possibility of establishing an arts district in the city.

Led by the Economic Development Authority, the Williamsburg City Council has allotted $12,500 for ArtSpace, a non-profit real estate developer specializing in the arts, to conduct a feasibility survey March 2-3. Additionally, a group of 16 city residents will examine the potential of an arts community in Williamsburg.

According to Economic Development Director Michelle DeWitt, the initiative has been under consideration for some time.

“A long time ago, the city council identified a need for more cultural activities here,” DeWitt said. “Arts are a way to diversify the economy and help existing businesses while respecting what’s already here — great cultural sources like the College of William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg.”

DeWitt said the reasoning behind the district was a need to develop a creative economy with more innovative business models.

“There is an economic return to what artists do, and the arts are universally recognized and appreciated,” DeWitt said.

Previous plans for an arts district have focused on zoning issues and availability of real estate space. To establish an arts community, the city would have to create both residential and commercial zones that allow artists to live and work in the same space.

Over the summer, the Virginia General Assembly passed house bill 1735, which grants statewide authority for the creation of arts districts through tax incentives and regulatory flexibilities.

“A lot of communities come to us looking to spur economic development in the area,” ArtSpace Consulting
Director Teri Deaver said. “During our visits, we’re looking for indicators that the right ingredients are in place — artists, community leadership and investors that are interested in making this work.”

ArtSpace also provided guidance in selecting focus group members, advising the city to include artists from multiple disciplines.

“We definitely wanted representatives from William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg, but also people with knowledge about commercial real estate and business,” DeWitt said. “The group is also multi-generational, and includes people from different creative industries.”

The members will meet roughly six times over the next few months.

DeWitt said the most ideal site for an arts district would be the triangular area between Lafayette Road and Richmond Road.

“It is close to the College and blends with student-oriented retail and interests, even possible student living,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt said students and the College will be an important part of the process.

“Students are part of the creative economy, and we would love to know [why] or why not they would stay here after graduation,” she said. “We have had overwhelming positive feedback, but the city can’t do this alone.”

Although the creation of an arts district is still in its early stages, both DeWitt and Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler M.A. ’76 say a positive outcome is likely.

“It will attract more visitors and make the city a better and more interesting place to live [in],” Zeidler said.

A public meeting will be held with ArtSpace consultants on March 2 in the Community Building on North Boundary Street to discuss the project’s feasibility and timeline.

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