The Associated Press State & Local Wire
BYLINE: By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI
DATELINE: PROVIDENCE R.I.
Rhode Island is turning anew to the arts as an economic engine.
The city of Woonsocket, where a massive schools deficit has created a fiscal crisis, is seeking a $100,000 federal arts grant to pump life into its downtown. A portion of a generous new Rhode Island Foundation grant will be used to help incubate art and design startups around the state. And bills pending in the state Legislature would create several new arts districts, including in Central Falls, a city in bankruptcy with an anemic tax base whose economic future will pivot in large part on attracting investment.
“When you bring art and arts into the community, it really changes that place,” said Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who visited Woonsocket last week in what was his third trip to Rhode Island. The arts, he added, can be “transformative.”
Rhode Island, which has the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate of 11 percent, already has nine tax-free arts districts, including in Providence and Pawtucket, which has spent years rebranding itself from an old industrial powerhouse whose time had come and gone to an arts hub. Artists who live and work in the districts are exempt from some state income tax, and the works are free from sales tax.
Following the lead of those two cities, Woonsocket in 2003 created an arts district that encompasses its Main Street and other areas along the Blackstone River. The district includes the renovated Stadium Theatre, which hosts over 400 events a year; the Museum of Work and Culture; and the RiverzEdge Arts Project, a youth-development nonprofit housed in a redeveloped mill along with a cabinet maker, arts school, performance venue and yarn shop.
But in Woonsocket, much of the available space is still vastly underutilized, or empty.
Matt Wojcik, the city’s economic development director, points to the Stadium Theatre as an enormously successful anchor on Main Street; ticket sales have climbed even in the sour economy. He said studies have shown that every theater ticket sold, in cities comparable in size to Woonsocket, brings an average of $40 to $42 in additional spending, including in shops, restaurants and lodging. Right now, that spending is not happening in Woonsocket.
“We see it as a strategy to build out all these vacancies on Main Street to generate sufficient interest to keep people in the city for more than just the show,” he said.
Rebekah Greenwald Speck, executive director of RiverzEdge, envisions a handmade craft market, an “arted-up” coffee shop and Internet cafe and the type of live-work studios that aided Pawtucket’s renewal.
“We have leaders that include art in their vision of the future of this city, for very good reason,” she said. “We can already see that art is bringing attention to this city, and where attention flows, money goes.”
Woonsocket’s application for the National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant comes after Providence last year won one for $200,000 for arts programming and a public art installation at a central downtown park.
Landesman refers to arts-centric redevelopment as “creative placemaking.” Some small cities and towns have become known for their cultural offerings: Ashland, Ore., has a Shakespeare festival that is a national draw. Arnaudville, La., was highlighted in a recent NEA report for its celebration of Cajun culture. Providence has WaterFire, a huge tourist draw in which bonfires are lit on downtown riverways on summer weekends.
Allan Tear, co-founder of Betaspring, an incubator program in Providence that mentors high-tech entrepreneurs, sees much more arts potential. He recently won an Innovation Fellowship worth $300,000 in which he hopes to spur a startup revolution in “underleveraged” economic clusters including art and design.
In the Pawtucket arts district, four large mill buildings have been redeveloped into studios and apartments, and the city has a two-week arts festival whose budget has grown tenfold. City officials want to expand the district.
“Economic development is image-building. In the ’90s we had an image of underutilized and vacant mills,” said Herb Weiss, the city’s economic and cultural affairs officer. “What we did through the arts was to turn around our image. We have mills filled with artists. We were able because of the arts district to market our city. We were able to attract attention from developers all over the nation.”
He added: “We as a city have as our philosophy: Artists are not just artists, they’re small businesses.”
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