By Tony Doris – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WEST PALM BEACH — West Palm Beach’s effort to turn its historic but struggling Northwest into a tourist destination got a boost today with the announcement that the city won a Knight Cities Challenge grant — one of 37 awarded out of 4,500 applicants.
The project, submitted by Jon Ward, executive director of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, aims to get residents engaged in turning the city’s real estate investment in the neighborhood and its 1930s-era Sunset Lounge into active venues to spark African-American cultural tourism and revive the low-income area north of downtown.
The city recently spent $2.4 million for the Sunset, at 609 Eighth St., and six surrounding parcels, and hopes to use the jazz hall and the nearby Alice Moore home to draw attention to the neighborhood’s cultural history.
“We’re already focused on the physical plant and how we need to remodel things,” Ward said. “The grant is all about community outreach and showing what the value of the Sunset and all of these related entities are to the community, showing the possibilities and how the community can have a say.”
The $171,650 grant will help hire consultants from a Canadian nonprofit called 8 80 Cities that focuses on making urban public spaces more livable. The firm, along with the Knight Foundation, last year sponsored a trip that Mayor Jeri Muoio took to Copenhagen for a week-long seminar on livability.
The Northwest project was one of three West Palm finalists this year, and the first application from the city ever to win the grant, said Lilly Weinberg, program director of community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation. The grant represents a bet that the project will help the city retain and attract talent, create economic opportunities and build civic engagement, she said.
“We’re really excited about the Sunset Lounge,” Weinberg said. “We believe that in order for the Sunset Lounge to be successful, it’s critical that there is really smart civic engagement and a potential piloting program to test out what really works.”
For Ward and the Community Redevelopment Agency, the first step was in viewing the Sunset — where Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other greats once played — through the lens of its historic preservation and its larger potential as a community asset. Then discussions focused on creating a music-oriented park in front of the building, and on creating a culinary component with food trucks nearby on Seventh Street, to encourage festivals, community reunions, weddings and musical performances, Ward said.
“Now we’re starting to talk about an African-American cultural tourism industry for the city. Black tourism is arguably one of the fastest growing parts of the cultural tourism business,” he said.
“We’re trying to give a lot of thought into how this acquisition can raise the community up and give it a sense of place and pride and have it be a project in which they fully engage,” he said.
“Every community in America can have a good shot of doing this kind of thing if they’ll only treasure their assets and see the value in them.”