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The ABCs of Creating an Artist Friendly Community

Written by Herb Weiss, Pawtucket’s Economic and Cultural Affairs Officer, 2005.

In 1783, Samuel Slater founded America's cotton industry on the banks of the Blackstone River. Cotton would be woven by machinery, powered by water, not woven by hand. America’s industrial revolution began in the City of Pawtucket.

At that time, artisans and gathered around the mills springing up on the banks of the Blackstone River. Their artistic creativity and skills at forging metal would build and maintain the machinery.

Even today Pawtucket continues to attract artisans to live and ply their crafts. Nationally-recognized artists, Howard Ben Tre, Steven Weinberg, Morris Nathanson, Gretchen Dow Simpson, and Regina A. Partridge and Elizabeth Alexander Goddard, have established art studios in our artist-friendly city. More over, in the last six years, hundreds of artists have joined them and relocated into our city, moving into mills to operate studios or to live.

By supporting Mayor James E. Doyle's vision to create an artist friendly community, Pawtucket's Department of Planning & Redevelopment has now changed Pawtucket’s image of being a “hardscrabble” industrial city of 72, 958. While not wanting to lose our grit or blue collar-roots, Pawtucket has slowly becoming known as Rhode Island’s newest regional artist Mecca.

The Providence Journal, Rhode Island's largest daily, has recognized Pawtucket for “walking its talk” in wooing artists. It’s no smoke or mirrors here.

Mayor Doyle concedes that Pawtucket is not a Boston or Providence. “We're this David that sits between the two huge Goliaths,” he often says.

Doyle, Pawtucket’s chief advocate for the art, sees the city as a small town with a growing arts community. Pawtucket’s arts district has become a powerful economic engine that has brought attention to the City and has become a powerful economic engine, revitalizing the community. We have long viewed artists as small businesses.

Cities must utilize all their assets in their attempts to attract artists. Pawtucket has made use of Rhode Island’s state income tax incentive program.

In 1998, more than 90 cities throughout the nation had arts districts. Pawtucket City officials went to the General Assembly that year and lobbied for the creation of a 307 acre district, encompassing 23 mills and sixty streets. Enacted legislation would allow artists living or working in this geographical area to receive state income tax benefits or the waiver of sales tax on one-of-a-kind art work sold. At that time, only Pawtucket, Providence and Westerly, had arts districts. Today, seven out of the state’s 39 municipalities have arts districts.

Pawtucket also attracted artists because of its affordability in rents.

Rental rates are competitive and can be very enticing to artists. Rental space for studios in Pawtucket can be found for about $5 per square foot (including heat) that would have cost upwards to about $12 to $18 in Boston's South End. Rates in Providence may range from $6 to $ 8 per square foot.

Location was also a boon for the City. Pawtucket is split in half by Interstate 95, giving drivers quick highway access. It is only a 45 minute commute to Boston, a 5 minute drive to South Attoboro to catch the commuter rail, or a 10 minute drive to Providence.

Attracting artists is all about customer service. Pawtucket ratchets up the level of customer service it provides to artists, art groups and businesses. While all cities should roll out the red carpet, like Pawtucket, if they do we will make our carpet plusher.

From Pawtucket’s experience, the following actions can help Cities or municipalities to become more “Artist Friendly.”

First, appoint a Contact Person. This person should be extremely visible to the public. As Pawtucket’s Economic and Cultural Affairs Officer, I serve as a liaison between the City and local businesses, art groups and artists. First and foremost, I am their advocate within the bureaucracy.

When an artist calls the City for assistance, every department, from the City Hall receptionist, the Mayor’s Office, Zoning, Parks and Recreation, to the Tax Assessor’s Office, knows where to locate me. It should not take dozens of phone calls to track the City’s arts advocate down.

A City’s arts advocate must become a pipeline of information, sharing knowledge about city, state and federal tax incentives, available properties for lease or for sale for studios and live-work lofts, and available city and state grants to support artist programming.

An “open door policy” is a key for a City arts advocate to assist artists. No appointments are necessary to see me – artists seem to like that.

If requested, I will give an artist my “dog and pony” show of Pawtucket, by driving them around the city to show properties that are currently available for lease or purchase.

Most important, a City can only become an artist-friendly community if the Mayor or City Manager demands that policy and commits the resources and time necessary for outcome.

A City’s arts advocate must have cooperation among city departments, who must work together on behalf of an artist or arts group.

Here’s one example. When Stone Soup Coffee House, one of the New England’s oldest nonprofit coffee houses, relocated to Pawtucket, Public Works provided a large truck, a driver and helper to pick up more than 200 folding chairs and sound equipment from Providence and to deliver them to their new home in Pawtucket. Without this assistance, the nonprofit group would have had to make dozens of trips in a small pickup truck to transport their belongings.

Stone Soup's relocation to downtown Pawtucket has proven to city officials that one way to make an area safe and attractive and to revitalize a particular area of the city is through music and the arts.

The City also provided assistance through the Public Works Department to help the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theatre and All Children’s Theatre to relocate to Pawtucket. Finally, one Providence-based small theatre group is seeking to relocate to another City. If they choose to relocate their office to our City we have already made them a commitment to send in the Public Works trucks to assist in the relocation – at no cost.

We have found that the arts can enhance the quality of life, more importantly improve a poor image of a community.

Mayor Doyle strongly supported the reuse of the historic 106-year-old Pawtucket Armory as a regional performing arts center. This project, overseen by the Pawtucket Armory Association (PAA), has become the lynch pin in the City's Arts & Entertainment District and fits in nicely with the City's plan to revitalize its historic downtown. The City sold the gothic castle like Pawtucket armory, for just $1 and the Pawtucket Armory Association is about to begin a $6.5 million fundraising campaign needed for renovations to create the Arts Exchange, a regional performing arts center. Formerly from Providence, the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theater now attracts theater-goers and art lovers from all over Rhode Island, southern Massachusetts, and even from Boston.

This month, the Pawtucket School Department has opened the first state-wide arts high school in the Pawtucket Armory. Mayor Doyle is very proud of this new educational opportunity for those students seeking a solid arts education.

Pawtucket’s success at transforming itself into a nationally recognized artist community, in just six years and a half years, has been luck and successfully taking advantage of opportunities at best.

Recognizing its past success in embracing the arts, Pawtucket now looks to the future. Ann Galligan, a professor at Northeastern University, developed the City’s cultural plan, which will provide us with a road map to develop sound policy, programs and services to support the growing artist community in Pawtucket. Internationally recognized Morris Nathanson, who designed the restaurants at Euro-Disney and the Capitol Grille, and Stanley’s in Central Falls, heads a task force charged with taking Galligan’s report and implementing its recommendations.

A huge infusion of dollars is not necessary for a City to fund an Office of Cultural Affairs. If you don’t have money in a budget for a full-time arts advocate position, just expand some ones job duties. That’s how it happened in my City.

In Pawtucket, customer service has proven to be an effective economic development tool for attracting artists and artist groups. Ultimately, the best and most effective publicity comes from the artist community as they tell their peers how your city reached out to them.

Is the Pawtucket experience all smoke and mirrors, or a reality?

I say it’s a reality and here’s the proof in the pudding…

Since our arts district was created six years and a half years ago, 11 commercial buildings, many vacant and unused and many underutilized in the historic downtown, have been purchased by artists or creative sector companies.

Also, in the downtown we now how two live-work condo projects up and running. Over 125 people reside in these mills. Moreover, Urban Smart Growth, a California-based developer has purchased the 500,000 square foot former Hope Webbing Mill to create spaces for light manufacturing, leased live work lofts, studios, condos, and restaurants. Recently, First National Development, a Connecticut-based developer, purchased the 300,000 square foot former Union Wadding Mill and plans to build 300 affordable live work condos in the City’s historic downtown.

We are now becoming a home for a growing number of art groups. As a result of our arts policy, Stone Soup Coffee House, the Sandra Feinstein Gamm Theater, All Children’s Theater, the Foundry Artist Group and Mixed Magic Theater have relocated into Pawtucket. The Pawtucket Arts Collaborative was established after the City’s arts district was created and has over 150 artists in its membership ranks.

Is Pawtucket a place where culture can blossom? I am pleased to report to you that the Gamm Theater has thrived in our City. In Providence, they had fewer than 100 season subscribers. Today, in Pawtucket, this number has skyrocketed ten fold, to over 1,000.

A growing number of restaurants are now interested in finding locations in the City’s Arts & Entertainment District. Mad House Café will open its doors in September. LJ’s BBQ, on Douglas Avenue, called by national restaurant publications “one of the best barbeque restaurants in New England” is relocating to East Avenue, right next to Barney’s Bagel’s and the Garden Grill.

To respond to this interest, the Pawtucket Business Development Corporation, a nonprofit funding source for small and medium-sized businesses, revised its lending guidelines to create a revolving loan program to fund restaurant projects located in the city's art district. Also, a new class of liquor licenses has been created that ties licenses to the location. They are not owned, nor can they become an asset. If the restaurant leaves its location the license expires.

Experts say that it takes about ten years to create a thriving Arts & Entertainment District. In just over six years and a half years, Pawtucket has gained both state-wide and national recognition for its efforts to build an artist community. Our efforts have been reported in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, through AP articles and in the Christen Science Monitor.

For policy makers seeking to create an arts district in their community, it is important to “walk the walk,” with the blessings of the Mayor or City Manager. A growing number of Rhode Island communities with mills are seeking to attract arts. The secret to Pawtucket's success is tied to affordability, advocacy, combined with good old fashion customer service that makes it easier for the artists to find space and to their solve problems.

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