Right when you think the Williamsburg City Council is a body of hidebound old curmudgeons, they do something like this: Over the last month, the city has started laying the foundation for a Williamsburg art district in the triangle between Lafayette Street and Richmond Road. Yes, the hipsters may be coming to town. This is an exciting initiative that deserves the College of William and Mary’s and the city’s full support.
Over the summer, the General Assembly passed a bill that allowed any Virginia locality to use tax incentives and regulatory flexibility to create and support local arts districts. Developing local cultural offerings has been a long-term goal of the city, so this month, Williamsburg allotted money for consultants to perform a feasibility study that will address whether or not one of these districts would be right for this area. Simultaneously, the mayor has created a focus group of local investors, creative talent and others that will meet over the next six months to discuss the issue. While this is just the beginning of a several-year process, the ball is officially rolling.
We fully support this effort and hope the city sees it through. As has been shown in other states that have implemented similar policies over the last decade, creating a space in which theaters, performing arts centers, museums, art galleries and artist studios are encouraged to locate near one another tends to have a positive economic ripple effect that draws in a range of other kinds of businesses, from restaurants to advertising agencies. Doing so can also lead to an increase in desirable, if slightly immeasurable, quantities such as civic engagement and local activism. It can also encourage younger, creative-minded workers to locate to an area they otherwise might not consider. We are all for it.
With the influx of tourist shoppers in this area of Williamsburg and the new arts center the College will soon begin constructing, we have little doubt that an art district can be economically viable here. However, we need to proceed carefully; we already have gift shops in which tourists can buy reproductions of classical landscapes. If we are to create a district like this, it should be done with true intentions to actually support the arts. Doing so will produce a district that will pay dividends to all members of the local community.
This, of course, includes students who will be within walking distance from the proposed location of the district and will be able to take advantage of all of its offerings. This could even include housing, if the previously proposed mixed-use model is applied as it should be. Having student apartments over gallery space this close to campus would be a boon to those lucky enough to live there.
Our only criticism at this point is that the city has missed a step in the creation of its task force. Currently, this is a group on which there is only limited representation from the College — one professor from the art history department. If the city means what it has said — that working with the College should be an integral part of this process — a student should be asked to join the task force.