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October 15, 2012

Can Cultural Attractions Help Drive Business? Communities Seek State Designation

PHOTO/JACQUELYN GUTC The Museum of Russian Icons is one of the destinations that would be included in a proposed Clinton cultural district.
Kent Russell of the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton: “If we can get this thing to actually get traction, we can probably get tourists to stay … a little bit longer.”

Several Central Massachusetts communities looking to revive their downtowns are turning toward their museums, art galleries, theaters and other cultural attractions to make that happen.

Since 2011, the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) has had the power to approve communities' applications to designate cultural districts. Those areas get signage expressing their inclusion, as well as a place on the state's tourism website.

Fourteen cultural districts have been approved in the state, with the most recent four -- including Marlborough -- having been approved on Oct. 12.

According to the MCC, a cultural district is "a geographical area of a city or town with a concentration of cultural facilities located within it" that attract artists and cultural enterprises, encourage business development, establish tourist destinations, reuse historic buildings, enhance property values and foster cultural development.

Mary Scott, chairwoman for Marlborough Downtown Village, a group spearheading the effort, said becoming a cultural district is important to the downtown's future.

"We've been affected years ago by the malls," she said. "The whole topography of our downtowns has changed." She said the city needs to look at how to make the downtown area sustainable and being a cultural district could help.

The area boasts the Ghostlight Players, Chamber Music MetroWest, Mad Hatter Gallery and the Marlborough Arts Center.

"I think a lot of people aren't as aware of (the cultural organizations) as we'd like them to be. From people being aware of the cultural wealth of the city, I think it'll draw new business," Scott said.

The hope of drawing new business is a major factor in communities wanting the designation, as well as helping current businesses thrive.

Meanwhile, Fitchburg, Ashburnham and Clinton are exploring whether to apply. They received grants for the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission (MRPC) to perform feasibility studies, and it will present its findings to the communities by Nov. 30. Eric Smith, principal planner with the MRPC, said the organization evaluates the cultural assets the communities have and whether they're enough to create districts.

Smith said Fitchburg and Ashburnham are looked at as two different models of what a cultural district could be, with Fitchburg being more urban and Ashburnham more rural.

"The Mass. Cultural Council is really stressing the walkable cultural areas," he said. "That's an important aspect that we're now taking into account."

He expressed concern that it may be harder to call Ashburnham a cultural district, though he noted that the town has an "amazing" arts program at Cushing Academy and is also home to the Frederick Historic Piano Collection.

Meanwhile, in Clinton, community members and leaders toured the town's cultural assets such as the Museum of Russian Icons, Strand Theatre, Gallery of African Arts and Central Park last month.

"We've seen a utilization of our traditional downtown in new and exciting ways, and in recognition of that, we're trying to understand how well Clinton matches up to the criteria" of becoming a cultural district, said Phillip Duffy , Clinton's director of economic development and head of the Downtown Clinton Cultural District Initiative.

Kent Russell, curator and CEO of the Museum of Russian Icons, said cultural entities in town are working on ways to attract more visitors, collaborating on special offers and events.

"These kinds of activities ... have the potential to benefit many stakeholders in town," Duffy said.

Those stakeholders will need to come together to create a partnership for the cultural district, as a stipulation of its MCC application, and devise a marketing plan and goals. There are hopes that the designation will not only bring in new businesses, but tourists.

"It's big news for Central Massachusetts in that if we can get this thing to actually get traction, we can probably get tourists to stay, not just go apple picking, but have them stay a little bit longer and really begin to get some destination traffic in these towns," Russell said.

A Boost In Gloucester

At Gloucester's Rocky Neck Art Colony, President Karen Ristuben can attest that becoming a cultural district has its benefits.

"We've definitely had more people visit Rocky Neck this summer than in previous years," she said. "We've had more people and we've had more sales, and I do think the attention that it got when the designations came through last spring did bring a higher consciousness to the designation."

She said it's also helped create a sense of community.

"Rather than having all of our separate cultural organizations that are in this area and in this district function separately, we're now partnering (for) things" such as marketing strategies, grant writing and events," Ristuben said. "It's really for our survival. All cultural places are at risk these days."

The benefits of partnership are something Russell hopes will be seen in Clinton.

"We're all marketing our own stuff but we're not coming together to market the brand of Clinton," Russell said. "We need professional consulting advice on how to pull it all together."

(Editor's Note: This story was updated from the print version to reflect cultural district approvals announced Oct. 12 and to correct the number of previously-designated districts.)

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