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Creative summit spurs talk of arts bond

Monday, October 17, 2016 by Chad Swiatecki

With growth and development touching every corner of Austin, and rents and property values increasing as a result, boosters in the local arts community want business and political leaders to think big about how to preserve creative spaces for years to come.

Exactly how big is an open question, but some in the creative world feel that it’s time to think about a multimillion dollar bond issue to follow up the $31.5 million effort approved in 2006 that funded creation of the ZACH Theatre, Austin Studios and a handful of other cultural centers throughout the city.

Discussion of the issue is on the agenda for a Tuesday afternoon summit with local creative leaders, along with the goal of working to “develop Unity, Policy and Investment strategies that we can take forward to the larger community.”

The event is one of three creative summits that the Austin Creative Alliance organizes each year, and it will take place at 3 p.m. at CB’s Lounge at Stubb’s on Red River Street. Registration is available here.

The summit comes as city leaders are taking some steps with large dollar signs attached to grapple with issues such as affordability, creative displacement and transportation. The Nov. 8 election features a $720 million mobility bond, and Mayor Steve Adler recently announced the creation of a $10 million “minibond” investment product to preserve endangered music venues, though no clearly defined initiative has materialized to address affordable housing.

Austin Creative Alliance CEO John Riedie said the summits are one way to get artists, musicians and their supporters wired into the local decision-making process.

“Most artists are so busy out there doing it and making a living however they can, but they need to be in conversations in the same way that the real estate world and neighborhood associations are,” he said. “We’re trying to drive solutions, and to do that we need comprehensive communication to get engaged.”

Riedie offers some sobering data on the state of Austin’s creative space thanks to recent studies and the well-publicized displacements of Tapestry Dance Company and Salvage Vanguard Theater, which served as a venue for a dozen local theater groups and was forced out of its East Austin property by rising rental prices.

At a recent presentation to the Austin Music Commission, Riedie spent a portion of his time floating the possibility of another bond issue for creative spaces in downtown Austin. He has also argued that the city’s transportation issues would make the arts inaccessible to most if the far east and south sections of Austin continue to serve as the only affordable locales for theaters, studios and clubs.

A survey by ACA of 230 clubs and venues that feature at least some live music in their programming found that 52 percent of them expect to be priced out of their current locations when their leases come up for renewal. And that comes on top of the city’s 2015 music census, which found, among other crisis indicators, that one-third of Austin musicians earn less than $15,000 per year.

Businesses that showcase arts and live performances tend to be transitional and at the mercy of property values anyway, but Riedie said rents increasing by more than 30 percent – and in extreme cases going up by as much as 200 percent – show how much pressure is on those spaces as Austin’s population continues to explode.

And unlike San Francisco, where there has been a creative exodus from the pricey city to the nearby East Bay, Austin doesn’t have a natural overflow option that would make the arts readily accessible to the city’s residents, many of whom were attracted here by those kinds of cultural offerings in the first place.

One high profile geographic front for how “old” creative Austin and new business interests might coexist is the area along Waller Creek that is slated to see an influx of development and civic improvement efforts in the coming years thanks to a $163 million flood control tunnel project.

That stretch of just over 1 mile of downtown is slated to get a big face-lift through the efforts of the Waller Creek Conservancy nonprofit group, with some likening it to New York City’s well-publicized High Line elevated rail redevelopment.

Such a move could threaten the existence of the cluster of live music venues in the Red River Cultural District, most of which operate on single-digit profit margins and are already fearing significant rent hikes.

Leaders with the conservancy project say that preserving music venues in that area and incorporating them into the mix of new businesses that will move in is a priority for all involved.

To that end, Meredith Bossin, the conservancy’s director of programming, will deliver Tuesday’s keynote address about the role that artists and musicians need to play in Austin’s future.

“When (Waller Creek Conservancy CEO) Peter Mullan came here from New York and he toured the area, he said that (Red River) is a huge cultural asset, and we need to make it a synergistic relationship with what happens around Waller Creek,” she said. “There’s already pressure there, and we haven’t even turned any dirt yet, and we’d like to look at a variety of ways to support the arts and what’s happening in the Red River Cultural District.”

Photo by Fredlyfish4 made available through a Creative Commons license.

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