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City seeks to “empower” Red River district

Wednesday, July 15, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

With news spreading about the struggles of several music venues in Austin’s Red River Cultural District, many have raised concerns about the future of the area’s identity. Meanwhile, the city is rolling out a new plan that could help give a collective voice to stakeholders in the RRCD.

Officially dubbed the Soul-y Austin Business District Incubator, the Economic Development Department’s pilot initiative aims to help businesses within four commercial districts form merchants associations. Once established, businesses will be able to work together through these associations to achieve common goals and successes.

Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Music People, told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that a small group of RRCD business owners and other stakeholders met for the first time on July 8 to discuss the formation of an official merchants association. The group, she said, included representatives from the Mohawk, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, Cheer Up Charlies, Elysium, Red Eyed Fly, Valhalla and others.

The RRCD consists of music venues, bars and other businesses on or near Red River between Sixth and 10th streets. City Council officially designated the relatively dense commercial area a “cultural district” in November 2013, opening the window for a potential state designation and providing its members with additional marketing opportunities.

Houlihan explained that staff introduced attendees to consultants retained by the city in order to facilitate the process of forming the merchants association. The group, she added, will meet next in August, and a larger group of stakeholders will likely meet in September.

Maggie Lea, a co-owner of Cheer Up Charlies, told the Monitor on Tuesday what she thought of the first RRCD group meeting. “I got the impression that they wanted us to create a business district that fit our interests. It didn’t seem like anybody wanted to impose what they wanted for us,” she said.

“I do feel like now is the time to move on something like this and really be more official,” Lea continued. “It would be a great way for business owners to band together. It’s not that we have to fight developers, but I do think that it’s good for us to have a presence so that when anybody comes into our district, at least they’ll say, ‘Oh, this is something that preceded us being here.’”

Lea expressed hopes that the merchants association would benefit the entire district – which she called a “cluster of music venues” – and improve the area’s walkability. “When there is a joint effort from all of us, I think it will have a ripple effect,” she said.

The district recently gained attention after word got out that music venues Red 7 and the Holy Mountain might close due to potential rent hikes, and the owners of the Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlies – also music venues – raised concerns about the potential impacts that the construction of the Hyatt House hotel parking garage might have on their finances.

In addition, a report released on May 31 states that the live music industry in Austin faces major problems that “may allow the erosion and disintegration of critical parts of the Austin music community” if not addressed.

Houlihan said that the RRCD group does not yet have its official designation as a merchants association, but she hopes it will have secured it by late November. At that point, she expects the group to submit a letter of intent to the Texas Commission on the Arts Cultural Districts Program for recognition by the state as a cultural district.

Obtaining state designation would open additional opportunities for the RRCD, including the ability to apply for project assistance grants. The deadline for the letter of intent is Jan. 30, and the application deadline is June 1.

Melissa Alvarado, a spokesperson for the Economic Development Department, told the Monitor on Tuesday that businesses in three other commercial districts have asked to participate in Soul-y Austin. These districts, she said, encompass Manor Road between I-35 and Airport Boulevard; Cesar Chavez Street between I-35 and Pleasant Valley Road; and East 12th Street between I-35 and Chestnut Avenue.

Economic Development Department Program Manager Nicole Klepadlo laid out her goals for Soul-y Austin in an interview with the Monitor on July 9. “Our program seeks to empower Austin’s brick-and-mortar businesses along a commercial corridor,” she said. “The merchants associations can bind together the neighboring businesses to further stabilize and anchor a commercial area with the end-goal of forming a vision for what that district might look like.”

Photo of Stubb’s Bar-B-Q courtesy of Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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