Spotlight On: The Future of Arts and Culture Districts in Florida

by Bob Evans

I might dispute the claim that a river is the only feature missing from Tallahassee, but I won’t dispute that Johnny Cash lyrics always make a salient point. In a recent Emerging Leaders Blog Salon post at the Americans for the Arts ARTSblog, “Another Wide River to Cross: Incentivizing an Arts District in Tallahassee,” my colleague, Tim Storhoff, gives some excellent commentary as to why a centralized arts district can be a defining factor in the overall health of a city. The truth is that these arts and culture districts provide a community with a meaningful sense of place and purpose, the likes of which cannot be easily replicated.

Map of the Bradenton Riverwalk from http://www.realizebradenton.com

At the behest of the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, I’ve done some research on the subject of arts and culture districts. I found that these areas, intended to create a “critical mass” of places for cultural consumption, have 4 major outcomes:

  • Attracting artists and cultural enterprises
  • Fostering cultural development
  • Encouraging economic growth
  • Fulfilling community needs – both rural and urban

These outcomes are condensed from the National Association of State Arts Agencies Policy Brief on State Cultural Districts, which naturally also defines the state’s roles.  Currently, 12 states have enacted legislation for arts and cultural districts, but Florida is not among their ranks. Overall, I feel like the recognition, facilitation, and cultivation of these districts by the state is the most crucial part of the process.

Originally, I was unclear if the catalyst of these districts came from a grassroots or local effort or from the state; was it a top-down or bottom-up approach? Through my research, I discovered it was more of a growth from a younger program to an older program, where the criteria are established first, and grants, funding, and tax incentives are added later. The current models in states like Texas and Maryland support this.

Maryland is especially receptive to these districts, and has provided admissions and amusement tax exemption, income tax credit, and property tax credit for these districts, the most of any state. The benefits of these districts are astounding. Towson University conducted an economic impact study of these arts districts in Maryland, and found that “an estimated 1,621 jobs, $147.3 million in state GDP, and $49.8 million in wages were supported on average annually between 2008 and 2010.”

Florida has some excellent examples of arts and culture districts, from the Bradenton Riverwalk, to the Tampa River Arts and Channel Districts, Jacksonville’s CoRK District, Miami’s Design District, and on. But as of right now, there are no local or state systems to provide a forum for communication, nor are there direct tax incentives for these areas. If Tim’s dream comes true, there will be a vibrant district right in the middle of Tallahassee, and, as he theorizes, “If Florida’s policy makers can experience the benefits of an arts district firsthand, perhaps a statewide system can be implemented.”

Right now, it’s hard for anyone to see long term benefits of giving tax breaks, especially to relatively new programs. It’s going to take time, and we need to be cautious, which is exactly why states like Texas have adopted the certification-only approach without incentives. It’s a great way to test the efficacy of the program. But, as for the future, I’ll just have to defer back to Mr. Cash: “I don’t know. I can’t say. I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.

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