It’s been seven years since Williamsburg created its Arts District, and many residents are still waiting for its impact.
“I didn’t even know there was an arts district until I saw the signs on Richmond Road,” said Heidi McCue-Gomes, a Williamsburg resident and founder of Dream, Inc. “I would drive by and it just didn’t appear as an arts district. That’s sad.”
Arts districts have started popping up across the country and benefiting the areas where they’re cultivated, according to a 2014 survey from Americans for the Arts. These districts tend to boost small economies by increasing tourism, employment and cultural development, according to the survey. Impacts of arts districts come at a time when local communities are searching for ways to thrive in a changing economy.
“In the region, the arts impact our quality of life,” said Williamsburg City Councilman Benny Zhang. “These are businesses that can impact our cultural stamp but also our future.”
But in Williamsburg, the Arts District has made slow progress to develop, like similar districts throughout the nation.
A serious effort to create an arts district began in 2010 with the creation of an Arts District task force and a report, according to the Core Group on the Arts and Creative Economy in Williamsburg. The idea was to encourage creative economy businesses to relocate to a section of the city that had a vacancy rate of 22 percent, said Michele DeWitt, Williamsburg’s economic development director .
A creative economy business, as defined by the city, is a business whose primary economic activities involve individual creativity and skill and have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation of ideas, products and services. Currently some of these businesses include the Virginia Regional Ballet, Colonial Folk Art and the Williamsburg Contemporary Art Center.
To encourage businesses to move into the district, the city created incentives based on sales and business license taxes. These incentives are based on a five-year period starting with the greatest tax break in a business’s first year at 100 percent for business license fees, sales tax benefits and zoning and building fee exemptions and eventually decreasing to 20 percent by year five.
“These dollar amounts are not large enough to affect the economy of the area, but they can make a difference to a creative community,” DeWitt said.
Another benefit of the district was that it provided a special zoning in a residential area that allowed artists to produce and sell their work in the space they reside, Zhang said. Normally, any commercial work is zoned separately from residential areas, but the district allows these creative businesses to do both.
“Everyone knows it’s expensive to live in Williamsburg,” Zhang said. “Something like this provides affordable housing to artists by creating a space for them.”
Since it began in 2011, the Arts District doesn’t seem to have made any considerable growth.
And artists in the district have started to notice.
Adelle Carptenter, owner of the Virginia Ballet Co., is a member of the Williamsburg Arts District Association. The group is composed of business owners in the district who meet to discuss the district’s goals and future. But WADA hasn’t had a meeting since January 2017, Carpenter said.
“We all just felt like we hit a brick wall,” she said. “We didn’t feel like we were getting help from the city, and it became too hard for us to promote the district on top of running our own businesses.”
Carpenter said that at one point she was spending 10 to 15 hours a week trying to promote the district. There are many factors contributing to why the district hasn’t taken off, Zhang said, but part of the issue is the city’s involvement.
“This district started at a time when the economy wasn’t amazing, and over the years the city has just shifted its focus,” Zhang said.
A large part of creating a thriving arts district is engagement with the community, according to the study from Americans for the Arts. But that’s something that just hasn’t happened for Williamsburg’s district.
“I think there are general difficulties with the location and space because what tourist is going to want to visit a neighborhood? When you’re a tourist you want to go to Colonial Williamsburg or downtown,” Zhang said. “Right now if you wanted to experience the Arts District you would have to drive through a neighborhood and determine which are just homes and which are creative businesses.”
Previously, the Economic Development Authority provided 15 banners that were placed along the road that indicated the general region of the district. Recently, the signs were removed because of wear and tear, and there have yet to be any replacements. The Williamsburg Contemporary Arts Center has mentioned reinstalling new signs, and the city prepares to discuss the proposal, DeWitt said.
“If it weren’t for those signs, no one would know,” McCue-Gomes said. “It just looks like a neighborhood.”
Carpenter doesn’t believe the location is a problem, but she said she would like to see greater efforts from the city to create more interaction with the community.
“When people think of us, it’s not necessarily as an arts district,” she said. “There’s a lack of connection with downtown, where there’s already a unique culture they’ve worked hard to create.”
A future for art
In the past few years, Williamsburg has been working to analyze and develop vibrancy in the area and has allocated $150,000 to begin a downtown vibrancy plan in 2019, according to the city’s website. The city’s vibrancy plan intends to address ways to improve visitation in the area, and part of this involves the redevelopment of Midtown Row, which is close to the Arts District’s borders.
Additionally, the city is nearing the end of the five-year comprehensive plan from 2013 which deals with issues such as community character, economic development and housing, according to the city’s website.
“I think as we take the steps for our next comprehensive plan, there is a great opportunity to reconsider how the district contributes to our vibrancy,” Zhang said.
But artists in the district know how their businesses can impact the community if they’re given more opportunity to do so. Carpenter said that she would like to see more signage and, most importantly, the development of a performing arts center. She believes a center for performances would bring the community together through art, as well as provide economic incentives for the artists through shows and for the city as a rental space.
Until a greater focus is placed on its development, it appears as though the Arts District is destined to remain at the back of people’s minds, Carpenter said.
“Art is important because it’s good for the mind, the body and the soul. It’s life,” she said. “If a person, or a community, loses art, then it’s losing life.”