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Memo points toward cultural trust to save arts spaces

Thursday, August 23, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

It appears City Council will move ahead with the creation of a cultural land trust and an economic development corporation in the coming months, both attempts to combat the rising cost of real estate for residents and local artists.

A new memo from the Economic Development Department details the options for the possible structure of a cultural land trust, which has been promoted by local artists and Council Member Ann Kitchen as a way to preserve arts and music venues that are gradually being priced out of business by rent increases. In most cases a land trust takes some combination of donated land or property purchased using a combination of public dollars or donated funds to buy land or existing buildings.

They are in some ways akin to economic development corporations, which have greater latitude in their mission but largely exist to facilitate business deals between public bodies and private business interests, frequently involving real estate.

One of the main questions City Council and staff must decide is if the two tools will exist separately or if the cultural trust would operate under the umbrella of an EDC. That structural question could in some part be decided with Council’s passage soon of an overhaul to the city’s Chapter 380 economic incentive agreements, which will include some provisions involving real estate deals that could shape the makeup and business model of some developments.

Council is next expected to discuss and take possible action on the 380 agreements at its Aug. 30 meeting.

The memo includes possible frameworks, missions and operations goals for the cultural trust but doesn’t lay out a timeline or next steps.

Meghan Wells, manager of the Cultural Arts Division, said Council will have several options for how the two bodies could coexist.

“One of them may want to partner with an independent entity, and a lot of it depends on the timing and the other entities that are out there that want to partner with us,” she said, adding that the Economic Development Department has a separate memo on economic development corporations on the way very soon.

“There are statutes that govern how 380 agreements and EDCs can operate, whether one is an intermediary and acts as more of a leader, or if the EDC would be more of a city entity. There’s options out there, and a lot of it depends on how Council wants to allocate the governing authority.”

Kitchen, who has made preservation of cultural spaces a focus area this year, said she’d prefer the cultural trust and EDC to be created and operate separately. She told the Austin Monitor she expects to bring a resolution to Council soon to provide staff direction on how to move forward with the cultural trust.

“These make sense to work in collaboration as separate entities, but we’re still digesting the options out there as far as ways to organize them,” she said. “The problem we’re all trying to solve is that people and artists are getting pushed out of the city and we’re losing the places that are considered pillars of our culture and community.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who has pushed an EDC as a preferred option to address the city’s need for affordable housing, said she hopes to move quickly and see some more specific information from city staff on recommended options.

“We need creative spaces for artists and housing for residents, and while I’m not entirely clear at this point what the next steps would be, there seems to be a lot of support for an entity to perform this function,” she said. “I’m so eager to get started on this and the research from the staff has been very useful, showing there is support for things like housing on pieces of city-owned land.”

John Riedie, chief executive officer of the Austin Creative Alliance, has promoted a cultural trust as the best option for preserving threatened arts spaces. He said he’s hopeful the new research will push the effort forward.

“It’s extremely gratifying to see our community’s four-year policy development and advocacy process validated and echoed by the Economic Development Department’s memo,” he said. “We are grateful for the combined efforts of city staff and Council Member Kitchen in finally getting traction on this long-standing challenge.”

Photo by Nazareth College from Rochester, NY, USA (Bend and Snap Uploaded by Ekabhishek) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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