By Jamie Licko and Alye Sharp, Centro Inc.
You’ve heard the story before.
It’s the all-too-common scenario in developing areas: artists come in to take advantage of the cheap, underutilized spaces, bringing with them the “hip” factor; then come the people and big investment. The cost of land and rent goes up, and the artists must move out to stake out new, more affordable territory, thus creating a vicious cycle aptly named “The SoHo Effect”, or cultural gentrification. In Denver, one district is using an interesting model to fight back against this trend – special taxing districts.
Once a gritty, industrial area nestled in between two interstates and two sets of railroad tracks just north of Downtown Denver, the River North (RiNo) Art District is now home to a bevy of artist studios and galleries, designers, architects, and other creative businesses, many of whom came to RiNo years ago for the cheap space and its abundance of empty warehouses and industrial buildings. But, RiNo is changing. Fast. As Denver has eked out of the recession and experienced an exponential inflow of people, developers have eyed RiNo as ripe territory for new housing and commercial growth, and hip businesses have flocked to the area for its gritty urban vibe.
Remarkably, both the pioneers of RiNo and the new influx of developers and investors are finding synergy focusing on one common goal for the area – to Keep RiNo Wild. Together, they are strategizing on how they can retain their artistic, industrial personality and keep RiNo affordable for the creative entrepreneurs who have helped turned this neighborhood into one of the hottest in the state. Their tools of choice? A Business Improvement District (BID) and a General Improvement District (GID), which will work in tandem with their existing 501(c)(6) RiNo Art District organization, as well as a new 501(c)(3) entity to obtain grants and other funding.
On the surface, raising taxes in an area to promote affordability seems like a backwards approach, but the creatives, small businesses and developers in RiNo have bigger ideas in mind. BIDs and GIDs are perhaps the most popular of Colorado’s special district funding tools; BIDs, are commonly used to help neighborhoods market, manage and maintain their neighborhoods, while GIDs are solely utilized for infrastructure projects and maintenance. However, RiNo is pioneering new approaches to using these tools in a number of ways. First, both districts are being created at the same time in overlapping areas, which will allow for resources to undertake a significant number of projects at once. Uniquely, those projects are less about clean, safe and friendly, and more about keeping RiNo creative, affordable and gritty: infrastructure projects will have the RiNo edge; advocacy efforts will be around retaining the RiNo character; and perhaps the biggest expenditure of the districts over the next few years will include investing in programs to preserve neighborhood affordability on a variety of fronts.
The incredible collaboration being forged between artists, entrepreneurs, small businesses, property owners and developers has catalyzed momentum and support for doing things differently in a neighborhood that is changing at lightning speed. The BID and GID are seen as critical tools to support the RiNo Art District in achieving its mission and vision while creating collaborative ways to fund critical needs for a neighborhood that is anything but the norm.
What Can Districts Do to Support/Engage Artists?
- Encourage and invest in affordable housing and work/studio space; not just big development, think subsidizing portions of developments, tiny houses, and owning property that districts can use to incubate creatives.
- Training and business development for creatives to turn their particular art into a sustainable business venture.
- Employ artists to transform the public realm. RiNo will utilize its local artists and fabricators to make unique wayfinding, benches, public art, etc. that is all designed and manufactured within the district.
- Establish an arts space clearinghouse to refer artists and arts businesses to available spaces.
- Establish programs like “Materials for the Arts” in NYC to encourage businesses to donate surplus materials and equipment to artists.
- Develop grant and loan programs for arts space rehabilitation and other arts commerce ventures.
- Work with local banks and credit unions to establish special financing for arts facilities, mortgages for artists, and small business loans for arts-related commerce.
Based in Denver, CO, Centro is a consulting firm focused on providing services to strengthen cities, communities and neighborhoods by empowering people and organizations with the capacity to create great, sustainable places.