By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – According to Anita Wells, the executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Springfield’s newly designated cultural district is intended to help the city become “a better place to live and to visit.”
The city has joined 18 other communities across the state that have cultural districts. The only other communities in Western Massachusetts with the designation are Pittsfield and Easthampton.
“You may not think this is a big deal, but this is a big deal,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said at the announcement event at One Financial Place on Jan. 21.
The boundaries of the district follow those of the Springfield Business District (BID), according to the BID’s new Executive Director Chris Russell, although he added the cultural district extends further up State Street than the BID does.
Russell said the BID would be in the lead of administering the cultural district, however no details have yet been determined. He did say that by having a cultural district opens the possibilities for new grant opportunities.
Wells explained, “The cultural district is a program that gives communities a platform to build a cultural life. It brings together a group of partners.”
She added, “It is not a cookie cutter program,” and stressed the application process is rigorous. So far 100 communities across the state have applied, but only 19 have been granted the status.
Wells said the process includes the development of a district map, public hearing, marketing plans and approval by a community’s city council or select board. The application then goes to her office and she and members of her staff conduct a walking tour of the proposed district and meet with cultural partners.
The process in Springfield took about a year to complete and Wells said, “When we finished the site visit, there was something about Springfield that we knew it would be our next cultural district.”
Of the community meeting she noted it had “more energy, enthusiasm and authentic pride than any other community meeting I’ve been at.”
Congressman Richard Neal used one statistic to show the economic development power of the arts. He said that more people in the United States attend artistic events then sport events.
Evan Plotkin, the president of NAI Plotkin, sees the cultural district as something that will assist the city develop more market rate housing in the downtown. He noted that so many of the cultural assets – the Springfield Symphony, CityStage, the MassMutual Center, the Quadrangle, among others – are within walking distance of one another, a benefit for downtown residents.
“This is a game changer for Springfield,” he said.