WHY AN ARTS DISTRICT?
In 2004, Spencer’s downtown area was designated as one of the first Cultural Districts in the state of Iowa, reflecting the city’s long-standing dedication to supporting arts and culture, the unique Art Deco architecture throughout the city center, and the nonprofit anchor institutions such as Spencer Community Theatre, Arts on Grand, Clay County Heritage, and the Spencer Community Library which all draw visitors from the greater Spencer area and beyond. Spencer has also been previously designated an Iowa Great Place, leading to funding for projects such as SCT’s expansion and the new Clay County Heritage facility.
Both the Cultural and Entertainment District and Iowa Great Places designations have lapsed, but this moment presents an opportune time to organize a locally-supported and governed district. This district will:
- Provide a vehicle by which local arts organizations and nonprofit groups can easily collaborate, communicate, and share resources laterally;
- Provide a new opportunity for community-wide events such as Art Walks, first Fridays, and the like, driving attendance to multi-facility, widely publicized community events; and
- Pave the way for re-designation as both an Iowa Great Place and Cultural and Entertainment District, unlocking new marketing opportunities, technical assistance, state- and region-wide recognition, and grant funding opportunities.
These goals will be accomplished with the formation of the Spencer Arts District.
DEFINING THE ARTS DISTRICT
Cultural District, Arts District, Entertainment Districts – while the naming varies from place to place, the goal of naming a district remains the same: to create a vibrant area where art and culture facilities act as anchors to build a sense of place and strengthen local economies. In short, they act at the “living room” of a community – a space for experience, chance encounters, and a sense of uniqueness and belonging.
Building upon this action plan and the ideas discussed in Steering Committee meetings, a working group housed within a local 501(c)3 can begin the process of defining the goals, programs, and vision of the Spencer Arts District. In addition, the Spencer Arts District will play a similar role to that of a local arts agency or arts council, which does not currently exist in Spencer (The former Spencer Arts Council, which began in 1989, now exists as Arts on Grand).
Importantly, this process presents an opportunity for increased collaboration or, at the very least, routine communication between community stakeholders. In an early Steering Committee meeting, members of the committee remarked how helpful it was to even all be in the same room at the same time to discuss collaboration and new initiatives. The Arts District working group should be comprised of similar stakeholders and use meetings as an opportunity to plan district-wide initiatives as well as share their own plans.
Building on the former Spencer Cultural District, the Spencer Arts District should begin with the Veterans Memorial and extend south on Grand Avenue to the Leach Park Band Shell, expanding to the East and West to incorporate the existing cultural entities not located directly on Grand Avenue. The district should also include the future Riverfront development area, located on West Park Street and West 1st Street west to 4th Ave SW.
*Note: the SPENCER ARTS DISTRICT should begin with informal boundaries in the working group. Formal boundaries may be needed for specific zoning ordinances and tax incentives, and formal boundaries will be required for state Cultural and Entertainment District designation, but those formal boundaries should be experimented with during the informal time prior to state designation and implementation of local incentives.
Vacancies in the District currently exist, both on Grand Avenue and in several high-profile spaces such as the former Gary’s on the River and available riverfront land.
The District’s founding anchor organizations and future arts organizations are the most important feature of the Spencer Arts District. These groups all have rich histories of arts and culture programming in Spencer, and the Spencer Arts District will assist in the promotion and marketing of this programming. In addition, by working together and with other businesses, artists, and community leaders in Spencer, these groups can work towards greater sustainability and long-term success.
While not necessary for projects to begin, state designation in both Iowa Great Places and the Cultural and Entertainment District programs will unlock the door to greater recognition and awareness of District events and organizations, technical assistance, and funding opportunities. As a previous designee, the Iowa Great Places program is the place to start.
IOWA GREAT PLACES
This program supports the development of new and existing infrastructure intended to cultivate the unique and authentic qualities of neighborhoods, communities, and regions. Each Place can receive grant funding for a single project, as well as additional consideration from partner state agency programs.
CULTURAL AND ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT
This designation recognizes areas with a high concentration of cultural facilities as an anchor. This designation comes with additional technical assistance, promotional programming, and marketing materials. Consider ramping up programming and identity towards this designation.
ARTS DISTRICTS NATIONWIDE:
According to Americans for the Arts, Cultural Districts:
- Are unique to the character, community, and resources available locally;
- Have a significant economic impact on cities, attracting businesses, tourists, and local residents to a central part of the city;
- Can help revitalize neighborhoods and increase the quality of life for its residents;
- Serve as a vehicle to assist in the support and marketing of local nonprofit cultural organizations;
- (optional) have formal boundaries with specific zoning ordinances and economic tax incentives; OR have informal, unofficial boundaries that become a focal marketing point to cluster arts organizations