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Amherst seeking cultural district designation for downtown area



Thursday, October 08, 2015
AMHERST — A section of Amherst center that includes attractions ranging from the Emily Dickinson Museum to the Amherst Cinema could be recognized by the state as the town’s first cultural district, and just the third in Hampshire County.

A steering committee made up of members of the Public Arts Commission — as well as representatives from local public and private institutions focused on arts, culture and economic development — is preparing an application for the Select Board and town manager to submit that would allow the town to obtain the cultural district designation from the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“The state sees this as a way to promote cultural activities and economic growth,” said Rene Theberge, chairman of the Public Arts Commission. Theberge said the effort, underway for several months, would better publicize on a statewide level Amherst’s cultural attractions and organizations. The designation might also provide money that could pay for either physical improvements to the district’s streetscape, or for marketing and programs.

“It creates state-recognized areas where there is a concentration of cultural activities,” Theberge said.

The steering committee includes Public Arts Commission members Theberge, Eric Broudy and Bonnie Isman, along with representatives from the Amherst Business Improvement District, the Emily Dickinson Museum, the Amherst Cinema, the Jones Library, the Amherst History Museum, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts.

Select Board member James Wald, who is also president of the Amherst History Museum, said he sees no downside to seeking the recognition.

“The main thing is to promote Amherst as a place for people to go, both for residents and for tourists,” Wald said.

It also could build on what the Amherst BID is already doing to publicize downtown events, without requiring property owners to contribute financially.

“Matched up with the BID and everything else, we think it would be good for the center of town,” Wald said.

Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst BID, said Amherst has a rich cultural district and good partnerships. She pointed to the recent poetry festival co-sponsored by her organization and the Emily Dickinson Museum,

“This is another layer of opportunity to broadcast what’s great about Amherst’s downtown,” la Cour said.

The cultural district program was launched by the state in April 2011 and is described by the state agency as a means of improving public programs for local arts, humanities and science organizations, and to “enhance the experience for visitors and thus attract more tourist dollars and tax revenue.”

Theberge explained that the submission has to include a list of all the performing arts, literary events, art displays, poetry readings and other cultural activities that are scheduled within the proposed cultural district. The list of cultural attractions might also include events such as open mic nights at downtown cafes.

The steering committee will decide on the district’s boundaries, a formal name for the district and a lead agency, which could be the Amherst BID. The Select Board will hold a public hearing this fall. The board and the town manager would then submit the application in early December.

Representatives from the state council are expected to do a site visit and review in March. During that visit, officials will review whether the boundaries selected are accurate and appropriately walkable.

Hampshire County is already home to two cultural districts. In Northampton, the Paradise City Cultural District extends from Elm Street to Main Street and incorporates places such as the Smith College Museum of Art, the Iron Horse and Calvin Theater, and Historic Northampton.

In Easthampton, the Cottage Street Cultural District has been described by the state’s cultural council as being known for its “down-to-earth funkiness” and “an eclectic array of quaint shops, galleries and bustling nightlife all set in the backdrop of a diverse arts scene.”

Theberge said he and Broudy met monthly with late Town Manager John Musante about the prospects of a cultural district, and that it fit in with his vision for downtown.

Musante “was incredibly supportive of this and it was something he wanted to see happen,” Theberge said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.