By Sharon McCormick, RMA Director of Business Attraction & Marketing
Every time I speak in a new city, it is inevitable that I am asked about the importance of arts and culture to the city’s development and growth. Today, it is not just simply important; it is mandatory. Our polycultural future is already emerging and how city leaders infuse arts and culture as a unifying force will be a critical component of a community’s overall success—from eliminating blight to encouraging entrepreneurship.
The development of arts and culture venues, along with entertainment programming, has long been part of the paradigm for reinventing a city. But as the snapshot of America changes, so must the strategies.
At RMA, we are constantly immersing ourselves in global and national trends. A year ago, I traveled to a major conference in Barcelona, Spain which is touted as the 4th most creative city in the world. I literally could feel the creative connection everywhere I went. And the lessons I learned from the way they establish their public spaces and market systems have been invaluable in working with our city clients in the US.
A few weeks back, I attended a conference that is proving just as significant for our clients. The Convening Culture 2016 Conference presented by the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs provided tremendous insights into our shifting American identity.
One of the most important takeaways is the impending radical shift from multiculturalism to polyculturalism. This concept of all cultures being inter-related and fully embraced will be critical for city leaders to understand in order to focus on opportunities to develop and redevelop spaces for people to be unified through shared values and aspirations. There are major opportunities ahead to grow while staying real and encouraging entrepreneurship in our communities.
So how does art and culture help make this happen?
Many times as we begin the redevelopment of a community, we initiate special events. We establish the community’s aspirations before we even have brick and mortar venues, restaurants or shops.
We create a picture of what an area can be by promoting a fun, social environment.
The process that we use involves research. When a place has lost its identity, we work to uncover its history. This is an opportunity to discover the culture that made the place, a place, to begin with!
When we look back to plan ahead, we discover many cultures or what we would now call a cultural fusion or polycultures. The more we focus on blurring the lines that separate one culture from another the more opportunities we can create.
Our job is about connecting people, places and things that have become disconnected. We collaborate with individuals, groups and organizations that have a shared vision for the rebirth of the area. We then communicate these ideas and goals first through events and activities.
These events provide a platform for community members to socialize, share ideas, participate in the arts and become part of the solution of reinventing the city.
This concept is often referred to as “Big Tent Branding” as it appeals to a sense of belonging and is expansive, not exclusive.
Community members want their cities to succeed. They want their cities to have a competitive edge, and to offer opportunities for a skilled workforce.
RMA has made that happen for cities though the establishment of Arts, Culture and Entertainment opportunities. Presented here are two brief case studies about our client cities of Pompano Beach and West Palm Beach, Florida.
Pompano Beach’s Old Town Creative Arts District:
Reinventing Historic Buildings as Arts and Culture Venues Spurs City’s Renaissance
In 2010, the downtown of Pompano Beach, Florida was deteriorating. Two historic buildings were on the verge of being torn down and the community was dispirited and divided. Through an extensive process of researching the history and collaborating with the community, a cultural and educational hub was created; one that has reinvented the city while bridging a long-standing racial divide.
The first phase of the Old Town Creative Arts District began with multi-million dollar makeovers of two decaying buildings that dated from the 1920’s. The Bailey Hotel, a once whites-only lodging, was transformed into Bailey Contemporary Arts. The gallery and artists’ lofts opened in 2014 and feature art exhibits, classes and exciting spoken word events that unite poets, rappers and musicians from the entire community.
The Ali Building was a historic boarding house that housed African-Americans throughout the early 20th century and, according to author Frank Cavaioli, also hosted visiting jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway. Ali Cultural Arts opened in late 2015 and is now emerging as a cultural hot spot featuring Grammy Award-winning musicians in concert; music and dance classes, and art exhibits that pay homage to the predominantly African-American Northwest Community.
The reinvention of these buildings also initiated a new cultural arts outreach program, expanding access to enrichment classes for hundreds of local students who receive little-to-no arts education at their schools.
The exciting new programming in these buildings, in addition to improved streetscapes, aesthetics and illumination, led to the construction of the first commercial building in 50 years in the downtown area, attracting new businesses, restaurants and customers.
Downtown Pompano Beach, which was once avoided because of blight and crime, is now the site of unprecedented economic growth and socializing, with fun events like Old Town Untapped filling the streets with music, food and beer tastings on a monthly basis.
Uniting all of the arts facilities will be a new public art installation—a trail of honey bees—that will symbolize the spirit of unity in the Creative Arts District and throughout the community.
The Old Town Creative Arts District has proven to be an outstanding program because it spurred a dramatic economic renaissance in Pompano Beach, not only creating a new hub where artistic types can be nurtured but also establishing a vital force for education in the community.
Even more important than all of these tangibles is the renewed spirit that this project has created. The Old Town Arts District has imbued a new sense of pride in Pompano Beach residents and created a feeling of harmony that is transcending the city.
A New Dawn for the Sunset Lounge
Built in 1925, the Sunset Lounge in West Palm Beach, Florida drew the biggest names in the jazz business: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and more.
At a time when the railroad tracks along Division Street separated black from white, the Sunset Lounge and its musicians closed the divide—bringing blacks and whites together—cementing its place in Black History.
Unfortunately over the decades the area became blighted. The Sunset Lounge was no longer the draw that united the community, and it seemed that this historic site might be doomed for demolition.
Understanding the history and the unifying force this building had on the community, RMA, through their work with the West Palm Beach CRA, crafted a plan to reinvent the entire area.
Recently, City of West Palm Beach commissioners agreed to spend nearly $2.5 million on the historic Sunset Lounge and six neighboring parcels, in a plan to reinvigorate the Northwest neighborhood and attract tourism.
The City has big plans that include rebuilding it and rebuilding this once-thriving area. Conceptual plans call for renovating the lounge in a 1930s theme, while creating a park around it with outdoor performance space, a gazebo and a walk of fame celebrating the many performers who graced the Sunset’s stage.