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City looks to retain arts and culture amid growth

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

A pair of reports from the Cultural Arts Division of the Economic Development Department give city leaders perhaps the clearest road map yet for how to preserve and create artistic and cultural clusters that many worry are threatened by rapid growth.

The documents – the Cultural Asset Mapping Project Report and Thriving in Place: Supporting Austin’s Cultural Vitality Through Place-Based Economic Development – are the products of years of study and public input on what cultural places and organizations are located throughout the Austin area, and what steps can be taken to help new assets emerge as the local population continues to climb past 2 million people.

City staff behind the reports say they represent the most detailed snapshot of Austin’s cultural landscape yet, with district-level data on the number and type of creative places along with demographic and population data that will be important to consider when trying to establish new cultural centers around the city. The complete data set is available at and the two full reports are available here.

The reports’ findings will likely come into play this spring when City Council considers an expansion to the city’s economic incentives programs, which until now have been focused on attracting large corporate employers primarily through granting tax breaks. The new business growth tools are expected to emphasize small business growth and middle-class jobs, with creative businesses seen as an important subset.

The Thriving in Place report, which was created specifically to prescribe ways to prevent cultural displacement and other effects of gentrification, recommends an assortment of policies and programs that the city could use.

Those include: imposing development and impact fees, district-wide tax levies to support economically fragile assets, enterprise and abatement districts, municipal bond packages, land bank programs, capture of property or sales tax in a district, strategic budget allocation and private sponsorships.

“Last year we really saw development pressure pushing out the creative class, and we know we need to come up with impactful solutions,” said Meghan Wells, manager of the Cultural Arts Division. “If we’d started this 10 to 15 years ago we’d already have something in place, but it’s always easier in hindsight to say what you should have done once you have a better grip on what’s happening. Until now we’ve not had a lens where we can see where economic development tools can impact what’s happening with displacement of creatives.”

David Colligan, Austin’s manager of global business expansion, said the proposed economic incentives that will go before Council in late March are intended to in some ways address growing interest from private developers to incorporate creative or cultural spaces into new building projects throughout the city. The key to doing that, he said, is finding ways to decrease building costs so that developers can provide below-market space to businesses or organizations that are typically cash-strapped but add to an area’s quality of life.

“It comes down to anything you do to help deliver affordability, because I’ve spoken with plenty of developers who want to deliver that kind of product but they need things to help offset development costs,” he said. “What happens with CodeNEXT plays into that, but that also means in the short term we look at things like expediting permits or other easy ways to affect the building process.”

Another finding of the reports is that the local dynamics of an area play an important role in what cultural districts emerge and thrive. That means city leaders and developers will need to engage in robust community discussions on what uses and business types residents want to open near them.

“The report is a good first step at unpacking the pieces of these districts, because we understand that each is as unique as the community around it,” said Shirley Rempe, a project coordinator with the Cultural Arts Division. “There’s the top-down to bottom-up approach to how these places happen, but what we find is that it usually happens somewhere in the middle.”

Photo by Venturist from London, United Kingdom (giant guitarUploaded by clusternote) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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