Weaving the Arts into Communities

Ellen Eubank , Jean B. Morisseau-Kuni

Most communities are interested in attracting talented people, participating in the new economy and building quality of life. However, some may question whether trying to build a creative economy—an economy centered around arts and entertainment—is an appropriate approach when economic development resources are limited.

Community leaders in two urban neighborhoods, in Memphis and St. Louis, and two rural areas, in Mississippi and Illinois, gambled on arts and entertainment to revitalize their neighborhoods. Take a look at their success stories and think about what the arts could do for your community.

South Main Historic District: Memphis

The story of the South Main district in Memphis is a story of rebirth—a rebirth through arts, specifically.

  The Main Street Trolley plays an important role in bringing visitors to the South Main historic arts district in Memphis.
  Many buildings in the South Main historic district in Memphis have been turned into art galleries or shops.

Phil Woodard, past president of the South Main Association and local developer, has served as a father of this rebirth. He and his wife, who are also art collectors, had developed relationships with local artists through an auction. When Woodard and his wife decided in 1995 to rent an apartment downtown, they couldn't find anything. Most of the buildings north of downtown had been razed for parking. The South Main district had been designated a historic district, but most of the buildings were boarded up. The area did have one thing going for it: a trolley that ran on Main Street, making the area inviting to tourists.

So Woodard bought a building on South Main, rehabbed it and rented the first floor to an artist he knew. "It was tough, but fun, and I ended up getting an award for that building," he said.

One thing led to another, and Woodard eventually bought 12 buildings, redoing them one at a time. He has renovated most of his buildings with residential space on the upper floors and commercial space on the ground floors. Commercial space is necessary on the first floor "to generate activity," he says. His choices for the commercial space are arts-related businesses because "art galleries are cool." The residential rents pay for the building and keep the commercial space affordable for artists, he says.

After seven years of redeveloping and bringing artists to the area, he now sees others jumping on the arts bandwagon. In 2000, Mayor W.W. Herenton designated South Main as the official arts district of Memphis. In 2001, the South Main Association started the "Last Friday of the Month Trolley Tour." Each month, more than 1,000 people ride designated trolleys from gallery to gallery, where they enjoy art, music and refreshments.

There are about nine galleries now, in addition to many furniture stores and decorating businesses that have been attracted to the area by the arts atmosphere.

Woodard finances his projects with his own money and financing from local banks, historic tax credits and tax freezes available from the Center City Commission. The commission is an entity that promotes downtown redevelopment and can freeze taxes for eligible projects within its designated redevelopment area. Woodard says the tax breaks "have really made a difference in getting projects done."

South Main has become a hot residential area, especially for young professionals, Woodard says. About 1,200 people live in the area.

Woodard says that five years ago buildings in the area were cheap but empty and no one was interested in buying them. As interest has risen, prices have tripled, he says. Many buyers have a hard time succeeding, however, because of the cost of rehabbing, he says. But at least local banks are interested in financing such projects, something they refused to do a few years ago, he says. He adds that not all development is in the old buildings; there is some new construction, too.

Woodard says it is vital for an area to market its uniqueness. "We have one-of-a-kind stuff, things you don't see at the local mall," he says. "And we promote ourselves that way."

The area is attracting more established artists who can make their business work because of a built-in customer base, Woodard says. He hopes to preserve the character of South Main, build on its success and continue to keep the area affordable for artists.

" They are the anchor for this area," he says.

For more information: www.gosouthmain.com

The Loop: University City, Mo.

The Pageant, a concert hall and nightclub built from the ground up, is part of the successful revitalization of the Loop, an arts and entertainment area that starts in University City and flows from that inner-ring suburb into the city of St. Louis.
  Sidewalk cafes abound in the Loop
  A bright yellow entrance invites children and adults into the Craft Alliance, a nonprofit center for art education and exhibits in the Loop.

University City, Mo., has been working for decades to re-create the Loop, a six-block-long stretch of Delmar Boulevard that straddles the suburb's border with St. Louis. The area, which was once bustling with business, fell into decline, but is now emerging as an arts and entertainment marketplace.

The Loop, so named because streetcars once turned around there, has a look and feel of its own. At the western end, two stone lions atop giant monoliths stand guard and a picturesque city hall is nearby. Marking the eastern entry into the Loop are the former Wabash train station, a new concert hall and a new arts resource center. Sandwiched in between are more than 100 boutiques, restaurants, specialty retailers, galleries and live entertainment venues. Visitors can hear music on 10 stages. The Loop is home to a variety of arts organizations, including the St. Louis Symphony Music School, the Craft Alliance and the Center of Contemporary Arts. The St. Louis Regional Arts Commission's Cultural Resource Center is moving in. The area is surrounded by a mix of housing, from modest homes to mansions.

Similar to what occurred in communities decades ago, residents and visitors stroll around the area, stopping to dine, listen to music, shop and just watch other people. "I think that's what makes a community a good neighborhood, a good urban community and not just a little pocket of a place," Joe Edwards says.

Nearly 30 years ago, when Edwards and his wife, Linda, opened Blueberry Hill, a restaurant that is also a venue for bands, the Loop had seen better days. Other businessmen were moving out, not moving in. Banks refused to invest in new projects.

Edwards decided that his restaurant might not survive unless he took it upon himself to improve the Loop.

Since then, he has not only enticed other entrepreneurs to the area, but has taken on a series of projects. They include:

  • purchase and renovation of the Tivoli, a once beautiful art film house that was rundown when he took it over.
  • construction of the Pageant, a concert nightclub that attracts local and national acts and can accommodate 1,500 people.
  • plans for a new theater. Edwards has started a non- profit group to build a theater where community groups can present plays. "I hope to raise enough money as a nonprofit to build a building and the stages, run it for the first couple of years and guarantee the operating costs so foundations are more likely to give to this project," he says.
  • purchase of the historic Wabash train station, which he may turn into another restaurant.

Located in the St. Louis end of the Loop, the Pageant, the train station and the new theater are all part of Edwards' attempt to stretch the successful economic development in University City into the city of St. Louis.

With Washington University nearby, there's a steady stream of progressive ideas arriving with each new batch of students that comes to the Loop for entertainment. "From university and high school students to older adults, everyone interacts and gets more comfortable with one another in the Loop, and it's really great," Edwards says.

As for financing, only recently have private banks shown an interest in the Loop, says Edwards, who invested his own money in the area. A special business district was created in 1980 and was recently expanded. Some real estate tax abatements are available.

Local governments play other roles, too. University City has enforced building and property codes and has improved street lighting and other infrastructure, mainly with federal block grants, Edwards says. The city of St. Louis has established a redevelopment corporation for the Loop area; the corporation provides a 10-year tax abatement for qualifying projects and cuts down on the paper work, Edwards says.

"We didn't necessarily start out to create an arts and entertainment district, but soon realized that we had to take a wider interest in other real estate around us and a concern for the area as a whole," Edwards says. "I think this whole six-block area will become one of the most famous streets in the Midwest in the next year or so."

For more information: www.ucitymo.org and www.ucityloop.com


Small-Town Arts: Taylor, Miss.

  Marc Deloach sits on the porch of Taylor Arts Gallery in Taylor, Miss. Deloach owns the gallery and a bed and breakfast in the tiny town.
  In contrast to its down-home appearance outside, Taylor Arts is a modern gallery that exhibits sophisticated work inside.
  Taylor Grocery serves up catfish and atmosphere for customers who come from miles around.

The little town of Taylor, Miss., may be no bigger than a few city blocks, yet its thriving arts scene could give a city a run for its money. Art has been used to jump-start this town and put it on the map. The process may seem accidental, but Taylor actually built on key assets and took advantage of its location.

Marc Deloach, owner of Taylor Arts Gallery and Mr. Earl's Bed and Breakfast, arrived in Taylor with his wife, Christine Schultz, six years ago. At that time, there was a small arts community and "a little bit of a buzz," Deloach says. Taylor also had Taylor Grocery, a popular catfish restaurant that had shut down but would reopen shortly under new owners. Taylor Grocery became key to revitalizing this town because of the restaurant's reputation.

Deloach says Taylor actually had a lot going for it, such as its proximity to the town of Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi. Taylor is also within a few hours of Memphis and Jackson, Miss.

Taylor's residents, a blend of newcomers and long-time residents, are supportive of the arts community, Deloach says.

The original small arts community helped attract other artists, including graduates of the university and others from across the country. All have seen Taylor as a great place to live and work, Deloach says. Most of the artists work out of their homes and have their art in galleries and venues in many markets, he says.

Although there are only about 280 residents in Taylor, there are three full-time art businesses or galleries. Deloach and his wife have helped take this arts scene to the next level by opening Taylor Arts Gallery, which showcases the work of 12 local and regional artists. Deloach and his wife have bought and sold several buildings in town in addition to owning the gallery and the bed and breakfast. All this has been accomplished with loans on the buildings and without outside funding. Most of their publicity has been generated through word of mouth.

An art show organized several years ago was a turning point for Taylor's growth, Deloach says. It drew a large crowd from the area. "Most people who came said they knew there were artists here but didn't know how to find us," he says. Shows are now held twice a year, on Mother's Day weekend and during the University of Mississippi's homecoming weekend to draw on the additional traffic.

While it is hard to put a value on the impact of the arts community, most see the arts as vital to the town now. The burgeoning arts community is the main attraction for Taylor, drawing visitors from throughout the region.

Deloach says there is a new generation of artists who have moved to town and who will continue to support the development of Taylor as an arts community. Community acceptance is important as are a location and demographics that support arts businesses, Deloach says.

" An arts scene in a small town can work," he says. "We prove that. Taylor is on the map now."

Illinois Artisan Program: Whittington

Billy Heyduck of Charleston, Ill., demonstrates his pottery skills for visitors to the Southern Illinois Artisans Shop at Rend Lake in Whittington, Ill.

The Illinois Artisan Program was the dream child of former Illinois Gov. James Thompson. Thompson had traveled on the East Coast and found the small cottage industries of art communities intriguing because they sold art created in the region, providing a boost to both the economy and the artists. He wanted Illinois artists to have the same opportunity to display and sell their work.

His dream became a joint venture between the state and the Illinois Museum Society, which created four artisan shops. They are scattered across the state, in Springfield, Dixon Mounds, Chicago and Whittington.

Only residents of Illinois can have their artwork displayed. Twice annually, new artists may submit slides of their work to the program for consideration. Participants agree to a 50/50 consignment to help offset the cost of running the shops. The four shops currently work with 1,600 artists throughout Illinois.

Nestled in the Rend Lake recreation area is Southern Illinois' shop at Whittington. Rend Lake, created by the Army Corp of Engineers, is a 22-mile- long lake that is used for water sports, hunting and other outdoor activities. Last year, 3.5 million people visited the area, using services that support, among other things, hotels, lodges, restaurants, Wayne Fitzgerald State Park and a golf course.

Mary Lou Galloway, director of the Whittington shop, says the shop is frequented by travelers, gallery owners, collectors, tour groups and visitors to the lake. It's easily accessed off Interstate 57. Housed in the same building with the Artisans Shop is the Southern Illinois Art Gallery and a visitors center. Galloway and her employees think of themselves as ambassadors of hospitality. They are often called upon to help travelers find lodging, restaurants and other area facilities.

But the goal of Galloway and her staff is to sell the art and promote the artists.

"We display the work of about 800 artists," Galloway says. "This is not a craft store; we are an artists' shop."

Gallery owners often come to the shop to check out the artists and to buy artwork for resale, Galloway says. Thompson also chose items from the shops to take as gifts when he traveled abroad, she says. As the reputation of the artists spreads, some of them become successful enough that they no longer need the support of the shop. "This is a stepping-stone," Galloway says.

The shop has been profitable about half of the 13 years it has been open, with last year being the most successful. The state provides the budget to operate the facility, and the museum society pays all other costs. " It's a unique partnership," Galloway says.

The shop also supports a variety of programs, workshops and exhibitions for adults and children. A children's program has become a popular annual event, with more than 400 children participating last year. A sculpture standing in the front of the store is an example of an art project created jointly by a sculptor and the children. The Annual Illinois Art and Wine Festival provides an opportunity for 40 artists and 16 Illinois wineries to present and sell their wares. A variety of classes are offered year-round, covering such areas as art quilts, china painting and still-life studies.

For more information: www.museum.state.il.us

Success Stories

These four communities stand as testimonies to the economic benefits that arts and entertainment can bring to a community. Old buildings were rehabbed, new buildings were constructed, jobs were created, property values rose, new tax money was generated, and artists and entertainers found outlets for their work. Perhaps most importantly, neighborhoods came to life.


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