City Staff and Public Attend Arts Districts Presentation

City Staff and Public Attend Arts Districts Presentation

Imagine if Auburn was a hub for artists and creative professionals, and the city attracted thousands of tourists who spent millions of dollars every year. Some members of the local arts community believe it can happen, and they are pointing to a small city in Kentucky as their evidence.

Schweinfurth Memorial Arts Center director Donna Lamb, Mack Studio Displays project manager Hilary Ford and Auburn Public Theater director Angela Daddabbo gave two presentations in August at the APT about how they believe establishing an arts district and encouraging artists to relocate to local residences could improve Auburn’s economy.

Throughout the presentations, which took place during and after the weekly city council meeting, the three speakers examined Paducah, KY, which revamped its downtown business district and neighborhoods through the arts.

The city, which has a similar population as Auburn with 27,000 people, boasts millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue thanks to a number of public and private art initiatives, Ford, Lamb and Daddabbo said. And they believe some of those can be successful here.

Ford, who was raised in Paducah, said the city is very similar to Auburn in a lot of ways. “It’s not any bigger. The demographics aren’t different,” she said during the presentation.

Between 2001 and 2007, the city of Paducah invested about $3 million in projects and initiatives related to the arts and saw almost $40 million spent by organizations, visitors and artists in that same stretch. One random property worth $715,000 in the downtown area in 1987 is now worth $4 million.

A number of factors led to the city’s economic success, the speakers said. Paducah hosts a national quilting festival and is home to a major quilting museum. The city and private businesses invested in numerous public art initiatives and beautification projects, including a series of murals on a wall built in the 1930s to prevent flood damage.

The neighborhoods are tied together by an arts district that boasts multiple galleries and performance venues. And an artist recruitment program offered professional artists an opportunity to own homes in one run-down neighborhood practically free of charge in exchange for the artist’s commitment to invest in and fix up the properties.

“In 10 years, five really, I saw the city completely turn around,” Ford said. All three said this sort of thing can happen in Auburn if the city, local businesses, organizations and the residents themselves can all come together and commit to a similar concept.

An arts district can help tie together Auburn’s many cultural and historic sites that already exist, Lamb said. Private and public initiatives can help spur investments, as can changes to city codes and tax incentives, she said. According to the group, this would improve the city’s quality of life.

Lamb said the city listed similar priorities in the 10-year master plan released last year. And the city council is looking to overhaul some of its codes and zoning policies in the coming years.

“We’ve already done a lot,” Lamb said. “But there’s a lot of potential to move this along even further.”

After the council meeting, Mayor Michael Quill said he was impressed with the presentation and the three speakers’ enthusiasm for improving Auburn through the arts.

Quill said he believes it could be possible with a strong commitment from the city, private sponsors, citizens and arts organizations. Though local initiatives would need to reflect the local community, he said. “I feel something similar is very logical and doable,” Quill said.
—The Citizen