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Economic development corp. stands out as answer to creative space crunch

Tuesday, July 24, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

A long-burgeoning effort to have the city create an economic development corporation that would help public and private entities to partner on ambitious development projects may be the best solution to help Austin’s creative community address a rapidly worsening space crunch.

The effectiveness of economic development corporations in other major cities facing affordability issues for their artist and music sectors was one of the key takeaways of a June summit in Toronto that saw government leaders from Austin, New York City, San Francisco, London and other destination cities gather to address creative space problems and how to solve them.

The World Cities Culture Forum’s leadership exchange program used the 14 spaces in Toronto managed or in some way developed by that city’s Artscape nonprofit collective, which helps creative groups obtain and financially manage galleries, studios and other spaces that tend to get crowded out of areas by rising real estate prices.

Meghan Wells, cultural arts manager in Austin’s Economic Development Department, said similar bodies in San Francisco and New York City have made a difference in preserving arts spaces.

“There’s a ton of great stuff happening in these cities, and you need an intermediary to work as a sort of middleman for the city government and private money to come together, so deal-making can happen in a more nimble way,” she said. “The key is to look at who could be that intermediary, whether it could be something done by an existing group or if you’d have to create it from scratch.”

Creation of an economic development corporation in Austin has been part of the discussion for most of the last year while EDD has worked on updating the city’s economic incentives programs. The goal of such a body would be to create programs or spin up development deals using city money and resources without the need for constant oversight and City Council approval that keeps things from moving quickly.

Wells, who attended the Toronto summit with David Colligan, Austin’s head of global business expansion and the lead administrator on the incentives updates, said it is possible an economic development corporation could help fulfill the push from Council Member Ann Kitchen and others to create a city land trust that would help move forward the development of city-owned land for affordable housing, creative space or other priority uses.

She said city staff has done considerable research on the possible structure and execution of an economic development corporation but said the decision to create that entity and determine its scope will have to come from Council.

Those who took part in the summit spent much of their time comparing notes on what programs worked and deserve to be replicated in other cities, with Austin’s Arts Space Assistance Program and the Partners for Sacred Places programs attracting attention from other city officials. The WCCF is currently assembling the feedback and research gathered at the summit and will give participating cities a compendium of best practices case studies later this year.

The leadership exchange program was funded in part by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which tracks quality-of-life issues around the world and has identified cultural health as an important factor in the health and livability of cities.

“In cities with real estate pressures like London and New York, and Austin to an increasing degree, space for creatives continues to be a challenge, and those affordability issues are difficult to address,” said Tracey Knuckles, a member of the cultural assets management team for Bloomberg Associates. “There are lots of interesting things going in lots of cities and we like the convening aspect of getting leaders together to share ideas on what’s working for them.”

Knuckles said finding ways for governments to interact with private and nonprofit entities has proven to be an effective model for creative space preservation, though there is variety in how those partnerships can be structured.

“There’s no single approach, and to have a multi-pronged approach is the best because this is such a crisis in cities that there’s no one thing to do as an answer,” she said. “Government has a role in listening to its artists, along with things like land use, permitting and other roles they can play in moving things forward.”

Photo by LoneStarMike [CC BY 3.0 ], from Wikimedia Commons.

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