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The yellow outline represents the city's proposed large district; the gray is Samuels' proposed small district
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Mayor Dwight C. Jones and Deputy CAO Peter Chapman champion a 65-block proposal.
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Broad Street's newest gallery, Candela Books & Gallery
Sidebar The Players
Escaping the bus exhaust of West Broad Street for the vaulted interior of Candela Books & Gallery feels like taking a breath of fresh air. The cavernous space at 214 W. Broad St. still smells sweetly of fresh paint, polyurethane and sawdust.
The first day of December is unseasonably warm, and Gordon Stettinius, beaming through spectacles framed by a wiry, unkempt mop of salt and pepper hair, celebrates opening night of his art gallery and book-publishing firm with a capacity crowd of art enthusiasts, collectors and well-wishers.
"There's a creator's energy down here," says Stettinius, a photographer with a national reputation who served for nearly a decade on the board of the nearby 1708 Gallery before determining to cast his own lot on Broad Street. "I sort of like this little stretch of road."
And with its well-attended inaugural event, Candela becomes the latest venue to join the energy of Richmond's Downtown Arts District. Or it would be the latest to join, if Richmond had a Downtown Arts District.
For more than 20 years, efforts to officially designate as an arts district this once-blighted stretch of Richmond's main downtown artery (a length running from Belvidere to somewhere just west of Third or Fourth Street) have stumbled over innumerable political and personality conflicts. However, that white noise has not muted the progress of artists and gallery owners such as Stettinius who continue to set up shop here.
The clash of wills seems to have had no impact on the district's monthly First Fridays Art Walk events. One of the region's premier cultural events, First Fridays coaxes thousands of visitors to visit this once-shunned part of the city's urban core.
Richmond again seems close to recognizing the cultural beacon that continues to transform Broad Street downtown. But leave it to Richmond's leaders to fully explore ways to miss a prime opportunity to leverage its arts and cultural offerings as an economic development tool. As usual, politics and egos are all that stand in the way.
In February 2011, Mayor Dwight C. Jones' administration explored the idea of establishing an arts district, borrowing — but also deviating — liberally from an arts district framework developed over the previous two years by the Downtown Arts District Task Force, a group of area stakeholders that included artists, gallery owners, city and civic leaders.
That task force formed partly in response to a Virginia General Assembly law passed in 2009 permitting localities to create arts and cultural districts that can include enhanced economic development incentives to businesses and property owners, such as waivers on loan fees and rebates on building and rezoning permit fees. County boards of supervisors and city councils are empowered under the new law to create the districts without General Assembly approval.
Jones' staff proposed to have Richmond City Council designate about 65 blocks that included First Friday's current footprint as well as an area stretching past the statehouse and descending to capture the Richmond Ballet on distant Canal Street and reaching to include the Hippodrome in Jackson Ward.
"I think it's very big," Mayor Jones says of the relevance of creating an arts district in downtown that would serve not just as a cultural, but an economic development hub for the region. "I think the excitement is downtown. The statistics and trends are moving toward the urban core. And what we have here can't be duplicated."
But just as the administration was poised to promote their plan, the process once again hit the skids.
Riding the brakes was City Councilman Charles Samuels, in whose district the First Fridays Art Walk area lies. He announced his own proposal, this one for a much smaller arts district confined to about 27 blocks in and around the First Fridays Art Walk area. Those who support Samuels' plan say it falls closer to the recommendations of the task force.
From there, however, the process devolved into a test of political wills and backroom lobbying skills, with proposals being introduced and then withdrawn multiple times. The effort now seems likely to drag on for several months.
"I am not guaranteed to be right about anything, but I believe that a smaller, walkable arts district that's more in line with what is enjoyed by people during First Friday makes an awful lot more sense," says Samuels. His most recent proposal for an arts distict, substantively a near twin to his earlier proposal, included about 27 blocks downtown. He introduced the proposal and again promptly withdrew it in November 2011.
Samuels says he remains stung by news that area business owners didn't support his idea for a smaller district.
Just days before he introduced his plan, a front-page newspaper report touted his proposal for applying "the art of compromise," but in fact, Samuels now believes he may have been played for a sucker.
"I shook hands with [Richmond CAO] Byron Marshall on both the incentives and the boundaries," Samuels says, recounting a summer of intense negotiations that he said took place between himself and the mayor's people. "Everyone seemed happy with it in August. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great, we're really going to accomplish something here.' "
Meanwhile, he says, the mayor's office was "doing their own thing."
When his November plan hit snags, and the mayor's administration failed to step forward in support, Samuels says, "it made me question the value of a handshake."
But it didn't make Samuels question the value of the effort.
"It's of huge importance," says Samuels, of an arts district, since both the tangible and intangible benefits stand to benefit not only Richmond's downtown, but also the entire Richmond region.
"It's something we talk about a lot, because they have so many vacancies downtown, and you've got to figure that by filling in all the vacancies, we're boosting our real estate [tax revenues]."
In cities with arts districts, financial benefits have paid off. Within three years of establishing the Tucson Arts District, 26 new businesses opened and sales tax collection increased by 11.7 percent, compared with 7.4 percent citywide, according to a report created in 2009 by Richmond's Downtown Arts District Task Force.
Similarly, Pittsburgh saw gains after creating the Pittsburgh Cultural District, which generated more than $96 million in art spending and triggered $115 million in commercial sales for the city.
And then there's the intangible. Richmond's Broad Street remains the region's centerpiece, the front porch even for visitors from Henrico and Chesterfield counties. A vibrant downtown speaks volumes about the entire region's economic vitality.
Richmond's Deputy CAO Peter Chapman has led the administration's effort to craft the arts district proposal and does not comment on Samuels' complaints that he was played.
Chapman says the administration has not deviated from its advocacy for "a district within a district." This would include the Art Walk area as the branded "public face" of the arts district, but would also encompass a much wider swath of downtown, aimed at capturing a variety of anchoring cultural institutions like CenterStage, the Valentine Richmond History Center, the Richmond Ballet and even Capitol Square.
The plan is not inconsistent with Samuels' plan, he notes, since the smaller district is included in the mayor's proposal and would benefit from four exclusive incentives aimed at facilitating arts-related businesses.
Meanwhile, the larger proposed district is already benefiting from ArtBusiness Richmond. Since the fall, ArtBusiness Richmond has provided lending and financing to property owners in that area. Those incentives include programs already available to the city's economic development department without City Council approval, and have they been funded separately by the administration with $11 million.
Chapman touts two "artist live-and work-space" projects — studio loft developments meant to provide rent-controlled housing for artists — that already are in the works on and near Broad. Together, they total more than $1 million in city-backed funding.
Chapman makes no pretense about the mayor's motives. While an arts district is about promoting the arts, he says, "I would be remiss if I didn't reinforce that revitalization has to be a primary motivation for the city."
That means Jackson Ward, Monroe Ward and areas of Broad Street between Second and Ninth streets that remain economically challenged. All are on the administration's mind as they advocate for their "district within a district" proposal.
"We see this as a very decent compromise effort, a diversity of arts and cultural institutions," says Chapman, a self-described "wonk" who believes the larger district is essential to the smaller district's success. "It's about leverage. How can we leverage off the foot traffic and commercial activity and the brand that each of these cultural institutions [in the larger district] has in order to benefit this smaller arts district area?"
Chapman and Samuels came face to face on Nov. 22 for the first time after Samuels had withdrawn his latest proposal. At a meeting at the Empire Theatre on Broad Street, about three dozen arts district stakeholders gathered in a room dominated by the set for a production of A Christmas Carol. The meeting, moderated by Brooks Smith of CultureWorks, a nonprofit arts advisory commission that has been heavily involved in the arts district process, was called to assess whether there was common ground.
"I think we're at a point where if there was frustration for the people who were at it for the last 20 years [on Broad Street], there's certainly frustration among the people who have been at it for the last two," said Smith. "We want to see this thing through."
The meeting also served as a place to display the continued tensions between Samuels and Chapman, who both spoke during the meeting. And it also served to exhibit another underlying struggle that's been less visible, but perhaps even more pivotal.
That struggle is between Christina Newton, in her role as director of Curated Culture and organizer of the First Fridays Art Walk, and leadership of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, or DNA, a group of residents and businesses on Broad Street. The association represents a membership that overlaps and eclipses that of Curated Culture. Newton has been a staunch and vocal advocate of Samuels' proposal, while the DNA leadership has stood by the mayor's plan.
At the meeting, Newton was the only person in the room who spoke in absolute opposition to the mayor's plan.
"I'm sorry there aren't more people here from the community … who don't buy the larger district," Newton said. "There are a lot of people who are not here tonight … who did not have their voices heard tonight."
Most Broad Street gallery owners lavish expansive credit to Newton for her role in Broad Street's transformation into a vibrant creative corridor over the past decade.
The organization she oversees coordinates and promotes the First Fridays Art Walk event, and there is unanimous agreement among businesses in the area that her efforts over the past decade have grown the event's attendance from a few hundred people wandering between the galleries into a dynamic, multicultural arts and music showcase now drawing 5,000 people.
"It's one of the coolest events still in the city," says the co-owner of one Broad Street gallery.
But in recent years, he and many gallery owners say they have begun to quietly voice their discontent with Newton's somewhat brusque leadership style, which he says has alienated many businesses and led to the decline in membership of galleries in Curated Culture.
"It's just not being led by a business leader," says the gallery owner, who asked not to be named. He actually owns two businesses in the area and has had clashes with Newton recently about her oversight of First Fridays. "It just got too big for her."
Privately, many also blame Newton for failing to act decisively after June's First Friday event ended with the Richmond Police Department's harsh dispersal of a group of young African-Americans who'd gathered to listen to live music in front of one Broad Street business. The July and August events also ended with large groups of young people clashing with police, leading to the cancellation of the September event. Critics say Newton should have gotten ahead of the crowd-control issue, rather than let police take the lead.
"I hate to throw Christina under the bus, but I think she's been a big problem in this," says Scott Garnett, treasurer of the DNA who owns Lift cafe on Broad and who is also a real estate broker/agent whose focus is in the area around the proposed art district. "I give her credit. What she did was to help foster this whole thing, but I don't think she was able to take it in her capacity to the next level."
Over the past several months, even as Newton and DNA leaders have taken opposite stands on the arts district's boundaries, the two also have been negotiating toward a possible end of Curated Culture, according to numerous sources, who say Newton's own resignation has been postponed a number of times over recent months.
Katie Ukrop, who owns Quirk Gallery and is vice president of the DNA, recounts a phone call in August from Newton, the first time the Curated Culture director expressed her plan to step down.
"She told me she planned to resign," says Ukrop.
And after years where Curated Culture's board floated numerous proposals to hand over administration of First Fridays to other cultural institutions, it is the DNA that now is ready to take on that role. "I think it's fair to say that the DNA, under the idea that she planned to resign, undertook figuring out how to assume organization of the First Fridays Art Walk," says Ukrop.
But Newton says that no decision has been made to allow the DNA to take over First Fridays or to absorb Curated Culture.
"Our discussions of moving First Fridays over to the auspices of the DNA are still in discussion," she says, indicating that those discussions currently are on hold and "I don't think that we'll be moving forward with that — I would just say discussions are on hold at this point."
DNA leaders say they have been frustrated for months by Newton's public statements that she represents businesses in the area by advocating for the smaller district.
"I think bringing DNA on — where we represent so many of the businesses — I think it works better," says Garnett.
Newton acknowledges that she's also frustrated with recent events on Broad Street and that her resignation remains a possibility.
"I've had my fill," she says, exasperated, indicating that her dedication to First Fridays is "the only reason I haven't resigned yet."
"I've been thinking about it for a long time, and this stuff is just making me encouraged [to resign]," Newton says, "especially if I hear people aren't happy with the work I've been doing."
Newton says efforts by the DNA and the mayor's administration to create the larger district do not fully protect the interests of the gallery owners who are the heart of why the arts district proposal is even on the table.
"You've got Katie Ukrop and Scott Garnett … who are basically in the pocket of the mayor and want the larger geographic area to become the arts district, and not the smaller district that everybody else wants," Newton says, proffering that "there's only seven people in the DNA, and that's something nobody really knows." (The DNA has seven board members and another 40-dues paying members.)
Even though Curated Culture's board has shrunk to fewer than a half-dozen members, and many of the galleries on Broad no longer are dues-paying Curated Culture members, Newton sticks by the small district proposal as the one that best represents the area's needs.
"It had approval from CultureWorks and from the people from cultural sites around town," she says, but "if the majority of business and property owners in the area have changed their minds and are happy with the larger district, so be it. Let's move on."
While she was the lone voice of opposition at the Empire Theatre meeting, Newton is not alone in advocating for the small district. A handful of businesses in the area of the current arts walk have doubts about the idea that promoting an anchor venue that's a dozen blocks away could help lure tourists or art lovers to the area around the First Fridays Art Walk.
"People going to the [Richmond] Ballet, they're probably not going to make it to me," says Anne Hart, owner of Visual Arts Studio inside the district Newton supports. Hart is also a board member of Curated Culture and a member of that organization's predecessor group, the Richmond Arts Council.
"The First Friday sites have been the driving force behind the arts district idea," says Hart, who wants to see that any adopted plan does the most good for the people who were pioneers in revitalizing Broad Street. She notes that in the area Samuels proposed, only about 50 percent or 60 percent of storefronts are currently occupied. "We're bearing the burden of the empty businesses as it is."
The question of whether bigger is better is not new.
"The idea of establishing an ‘Arts District' in Downtown Richmond is believed to have started in 1987," begins a report prepared by the Downtown Arts District Task Force in 2009. Later arts district efforts in 2004 and 2007 also both came to naught, according to the group's report.
The Downtown Arts District Task Force's 2009 report cites lengthy discussions about boundaries for the proposed district, with those conversations veering as far east as 14th Street in Shockoe Slip in order to include La Différence, and "north to I-95 and south to the James River." But, as the report notes, "debate has always included whether such a district should be ‘walkable'."
Newton and Samuels say they oppose the idea of a large district mostly because it lacks "walkability." Samuels also fears it might divert resources to outlying areas of a district instead of focusing on the main corridor around Broad Street. In turn, this dispersal of resources could make it much harder to assess successes.
But Chapman disagrees. Most of the direct financial incentives — city-administered lending and investment tools that currently amount to $11 million, along with other incentives like lower interest rates and application fees for loans — are part of ArtBusiness Richmond. Because his office already has implemented ArtBusiness Richmond within the boundaries of the proposed larger district, concern that funding would be watered down is irrelevant, he says. City Council's future approval of the arts district ordinance would simply allow the administration to have an expanded list of tools they could use to promote and market the arts district.
He says that four incentives of the seven that are included in the large-district proposal will apply exclusively to the smaller district — an area that's roughly in accordance with Samuels' proposed small district. And while those incentives are important tools, they involve rebates or waivers of various city fees and expedited permit reviews. In other words, the entire large district/small district really comes down not to a question of who gets money, but who might benefit from a fairly short list of incentive programs. None of the incentive programs that are part of either ordinance proposal includes direct funding for arts district businesses.
And Chapman says that arts district marketing efforts also would be concentrated almost exclusively on the smaller district area that both the administration and Samuels agree is at the heart of the entire arts district concept. Banners and promotional material will focus on the area that the public knows as the Art Walk. Some isolated banners might be placed in front of the anchor institutions that are spread out in the larger district, but being able to include them in marketing and promotional materials will aid in attracting visitors.
Chapman would not discuss how much money the city planned to invest in marketing the arts district, but offered assurance that the mayor's office "will put some dollars in the  budget."
Still, Newton maintains, bigger is not always better. Especially when you're trying to brand and market a concept that you have some hope of people accepting as realistic.
"You can't include every single thing in downtown," she says.
With Samuels' proposal now withdrawn and with most of the major cultural institutions involved putting their support behind the larger district proposed by Mayor Jones, it seems less a question of big versus small and more a question of whether the rancorous debate over the two proposals has again stalled the effort long enough that it might have lost momentum.
"They took something that was so simple and turned it into something so complicated," lamented one now-frustrated former member of the Downtown Arts District Task Force, who asked to remain nameless because of a close association with parties on both sides of the debate. "I don't know how it happened," she said, fearing that once again the process might come to nothing.
But most parties still involved remain confident that there's enough momentum to clear the remaining hurdles.
"I think it'd be very difficult to come up with any plan where you please every single person. However I think there's a consensus to move forward with the arts district," says Christian Kinnery, president of the DNA, who dismisses Newton's continued claims of broad support for the smaller district proposal. "If you're opposed to it strongly, I would think you'd come to the meeting and make your voice heard."
And Samuels is ready to look beyond the debate over large versus small, too.
"This isn't a battle between me and the mayor," says Samuels, who has suggested he would like to see a petition with enough signatures supporting the mayor's proposal to eliminate any lingering doubts. "If it's what the people want, I have no problem supporting it, but I want to know it's a real consensus."
Such a petition already was in the works in early December, being circulated by the DNA. Its importance goes beyond convincing Samuels.
Mayor Jones says he believes the debate over the past few months, while occasionally frustrating, has been healthy. "I think growing pains are good, but now we have consensus," he says, calling any remaining objections to the large district "a very minute minority that has a different opinion."
Also at the November Empire Theatre meeting voicing her support for the idea of something — anything — was City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, who indicated that she would support a proposal that had broad support. In later conversations with DNA's board, says Garnett, Robertson said she would co-sponsor the next arts district proposal, but she wants to see a unified effort that also has the patronage of Mayor Jones and Councilman Samuels.
And as seemingly resolute as Chapman has been in pushing forward Mayor Jones' plan for a larger district, he acknowledges room remains to negotiate — if that's what the people want.
But he warns that experience elsewhere should be a guide.
"We have not seen vibrant and viable arts and cultural districts in other cities that don't have diversity of experiences — of institutions and experiences," he says. "And diversity of offerings is something we would seriously lose if we did not have this footprint."
Chapman is hopeful to see a proposal introduced before Richmond City Council perhaps as soon as this month.
Back at the new Candela gallery, Gordon Stettinius says he is only vaguely aware of the drone and din surrounding the arts district debate. It wasn't the idea of a formalized district that lured him here, but rather the fact of a real energy that already exists in the air and in the businesses along Broad.
"I'm not as plugged in as I should be, but of course it's of interest," says Stettinius, who is more embroiled in planning his new gallery's second exhibition that's to open in February than in arts district debates. "I'm just excited to be here. It is downtown: I like the sound of it, really."