Lessons from Paducah, KY: Let Artists Revitalize Your Downtown

I’ve been trying to figure out what bugs me so much about the decision to rename Sydney’s downtown “The Waterfront District” and I’ve finally put my finger on it: coming up with a fancy name for a neighborhood should be the final step in a revitalization plan, not the first.

Sydney Nova Scotia Waterfront District sign.

Sydney, Nova Scotia Waterfront District sign.

Labeling the area between Wentworth and Victoria Parks “the Waterfront District” when all you’ve done is hung a few banners and hired a consultant makes people like me suspicious that this is all the revitalization we’re ever going to see.

On the other hand, changing the name to reflect some actual progress in waking up our dormant downtown would make people like me say, “Well what do you know? They did it.”

But no one will play Statler to my Waldorf on this, so as much as it pains me, I will use the phrase “Waterfront District” as I explore ways in which Sydney’s could actually live up to its fancy name.

 

Paducah, KY

Come with me to Paducah, Kentucky (population 26,000), a city I did not know existed until a far better informed person than I mentioned it over the lunch last week (thanks, AM).

Paducah is not unlike Sydney, give or take a Civil War battle — in 2010 (the most recent figures available) median household income was $26,137; the population has been declining since 1970; its top three employers are hospitals and schools; and 33.8% of citizens under the age of 18 live in poverty.

Paducah’s own downtown was (and is) described as “healthy,” but an adjacent neighborhood, Lower Town, was in bad shape in the ’80s and ’90s, thanks to that urban trifecta of drugs, crime and blight. According to a 2015 article in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report:

Fifty-one percent of residents lived in poverty, and dilapidated or abandoned housing was commonplace. About 70% of residents were renters, and landlords weren’t held accountable for substandard structures.

The idea of inviting in artists to rehabilitate the neighborhood came, appropriately enough, from an artist. Mark Barone, a former Lower Town resident, told ABC News that the idea occurred to him in 2000, after he’d witnessed a drug deal going down on the porch of a house across the street from his:

“Artists are the kind of folks who see what can be,” Barnett said. “They see potential, and we knew that was what it was going to take when they came in to see the neighborhood in its current condition.”

Barone teamed with then-Paducah city planner Tom Barnett to create The Artist Relocation Program, luring artists to Lower Town with the promise of cheap residential and studio space:

The City of Paducah began purchasing properties from willing owners and reselling them to artists for as little as $1. Residential properties were rezoned for retail. And, despite the neighborhood’s historic disinvestment, a local bank offered new artist-owners home improvement loans that sometimes exceeded appraised value by 300%.

The senior vice president of that local bank — Paducah Bank — told ABC the success of the program surprised them:

When we first opened the program, we frankly didn’t know what to expect … [but] working with the artists has been really, really, really, really good for us.

Sign in front of home for sale to participants in Paducah, KY's Artist Relocation Program. (Photo by Noah Adams, NPR http://www.npr.org/2013/08/09/210130790/in-paducah-artists-create-something-from-nothing)

Sign in front of home for sale to participants in Paducah, KY’s Artist Relocation Program. (Photo by Noah Adams, NPR)

Owning a home, as the ABC story points out, is a big part of the attraction of Paducah for artists whose usual role in the gentrification process is to lead the charge — moving into declining neighborhoods for the affordable rents — only to find themselves priced out once the neighborhood turns the corner.

Qualifying artists did, however, have to meet certain criteria:

Paducah Main Street seeks artists that have achieved some notoriety in the art world. Qualified candidates are identified as persons in the field of art using a successful art business model. The artist must be able to demonstrate that their business produces sufficient sales and clients to support the artist while living/working in Paducah, KY. Special consideration will be granted to galleries and businesses that are “open to the public” and maintain a minimum number of “open” hours. Considerations may be given to artists that commit to making substantial contributions to the community through workshops or other highly desirable projects.

The city sums up the results of the project, which is now in a new phase, all available properties having been sold, this way:

Attitudes of the residents have changed, many structures have been completely renovated or brought up to code, new infill construction has taken place, and the Artist Relocation Program has been successful in recruiting over 75 new artists/residents/businesses to Lowertown and over $30 million in private investments and growing with only $2 million of City General Fund monies spent.

Now, as we’ll see shortly, all 75 of those artists didn’t ultimately succeed in Paducah (and the multiple galleries idea turned out to be problematic) but the project achieved what it set out to do — based on an investment by the city of $2 million! Did that figure grab your attention like it grabbed mine? Two million. We just dumped $20 million into our harbor. In fact, we’ve now dumped $58 million into our harbor, with nothing to show for it to date but some nice photo ops for politicians. Two million is what we actually had left over from the harbor dredge.

 

Getting Creative with the Economy

Where Paducah (home to the National Quilt Museum) saw the creative economy as the answer to its down-at-heel neighborhood, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality seems to be pursuing the goals of encouraging the creative economy and revitalizing Sydney’s downtown as though they were unrelated.

Growing a Creative Economy, conference poster. Sydney, Nova Scotia, 2016.

Growing a Creative Economy, conference poster. Sydney, Nova Scotia, 2016.

What if we considered the two as one, and borrowed a few ideas from Paducah? What if the CBRM declared itself the Creative Capital of Nova Scotia? Sure, Halifax would squeal but let it. We already have some institutions to support that claim: the Centre for Craft and Design, the Celtic Colours  music festival, Lumière, the CBU Art Gallery, the Boardmore Playhouse, the Highland Arts Theatre, the Cape Breton Farmers’ Market  (Lower Town has one) and the New Dawn Centre for Social Innovation (technology counts as a “creative” field and the downtown already boasts a couple of tech firms).

We also have a lot of talented people — too numerous to name, in fact.

And we certainly have the real estate — what if the Charlotte Street storefront that formerly housed The Bargain Shop were turned into studio space? What if North End houses or empty lots up for tax sale were instead sold to qualifying artists for $1? What if the Sydney Credit Union offered home improvement loans at reasonable rates? (Think about the response the owners of the Farmer’s Daughter market in Whycocomagh received when they offered free land — just land — to people willing to clear it, build on it and live off the grid.)

If I were dreaming in Technicolor I’d say, what if the Nova Scotia College for Art and Design (NSCAD) relocated to Cape Breton? They could sell all their pricey, downtown Halifax digs and earn enough money to buy most of Sydney. Halifax wouldn’t even notice if one of its five universities disappeared, but what a difference it would make to the CBRM. (Wow, did I actually just say that? I think I just said that. BOLD.)

Best of all, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we have Paducah to learn from.

 

Mud Poetry

On Monday, I reached out to Victoria Terra of Terra Cottage Ceramics in Lower Town, Paducah, a working studio where Victoria’s partner, Michael Terra, is “the clay guy” and Victoria herself “the logistics goddess.”

(The Terras, by the way, had heard of Cape Breton. Said Victoria in an email: “[W]e know about the ‘move to Cape Breton if Trump is elected’ campaign. BRILLIANT!!!! It comes up in conversation a lot in our house. I’ve told so many people about that and sent them to the website.”)

The Terras were among the last artists to take up residence in Paducah, arriving there in 2008 from Saratoga Springs, New York. They purchased a house in Lower Town for $10. As Victoria told me in an email:

The attraction for us was the opportunity to get a much bigger house where we could have a studio. The piece of the financial puzzle that worked for us was that Paducah Bank was giving ‘no money down’ construction loans. We didn’t have any saved up cash so that was a key part of the ‘making it work’ for us. The other thing was the location of Paducah. We do art shows for a living and Paducah is within a 7 hour drive of many major cities. That is good for us.

Terra Cottage Ceramics, Lower Town, Paducah, KY. (Photo via Style Blueprint)

I asked Victoria what advice she would have for a town considering emulating Paducah’s artist relocation program and she had some excellent ideas:

[T]he Artist Relocation Program as a revitalization program is a HUGE success. BUT….for artists and the success of their livelihood…that varies.

When the program first started, it was highly encouraged that all the artists create galleries. The city was expecting that Lower Town would become a destination/shopping district right next to our downtown. It happened for awhile but then the economy crashed around 2007 and so did the success of the all the galleries. I think that Lower Town had a good 2 – 3 years. Many of the artists lost their shirts, houses went back to the bank and some of the artists left.

We moved here in 2008 (one of the last artists in the program) and at that time it was really clear to us that if we expected to make a living in Paducah selling art that wasn’t going to happen. So, since we do art shows for [a] living it all works for us. The artists that are still in our neighborhood (in 2008 there were probably around 65, now in 2016 there are about 30) make their livings by selling their art online, have work in galleries and are represented, at art shows, or have a day job to supplement their income.

This makes sense to me, especially given how many local craftspeople already use the internet to market their products. Terra suggests one, co-op style gallery where everyone can show their work would be a good idea and fortunately, we already have that in the Centre for Craft and Design. Terra continues:

In the last couple of years, the galleries have closed and the artists have incorporated that space into their personal studios. So now we are a neighborhood of working studios. At our house, if Michael is downstairs in the studio working, then we are open. If we are off at an art show, then we’re closed. We don’t post hours, it’s too complicated.

I think that the emphasis should be that you give good incentives (help with bank loans, architects, etc) and then you let artists be creative. Artists will create interesting things to look and will embellish their homes. I think that would create an interesting neighborhood that people will want to come and see. I would emphasize artists having open studios that when they are working people can walk in and see what they are doing. Artists can also have a ‘display area’ where folks can see a body of work. If there are enough artists, odds are that someone will always be open. In our neighborhood it’s hard for everyone to keep the same hours. Mostly what happens is that someone walks into our studio and then we call our friends to see who else is open and then send our guests in that direction.

Terra also had something to say that’s very applicable to Sydney’s North End:

Another thing that I think hindered the success of the artists is that Lower Town is a Historic District and that means there are all sorts of restrictions that apply to renovat[ing] one’s house. I joke that the city brought in all these creatives and then slapped a bunch of rules onto how we could renovate. It makes our neighborhood NOT stand out as an arts district. It would have been visually more fun and art-like to have murals and mosaics on our houses or painted crazy colors.

We have pushed the envelope as much as can with our house..as have others, in their own way.

This shouldn’t be a problem in the actual downtown, which is not part of the Historic North End, and even were artists to buy houses in the North End proper, it should be possible to make allowance for more creative renovations (after all, the CBRM was willing to bend the rules for the construction of two squat, unlovely office towers in the neighborhood).

Etcetera Coffeehouse, Lower Town, Paducah KY (Photo via Etcetera website http://etccoffee.com/home.php)

Etcetera Coffeehouse, Lower Town, Paducah KY (Photo via Etcetera website)

Terra also said it helps if your neighborhood has a good restaurant or bar or coffee shop (theirs in the Etcetera Coffeehouse) — the Sydney Waterfront District ticks all those boxes. And finally, the city must support the neighborhood:

[T]he city of Paducah is very supportive of Lower Town and promotes it and us. Paducah has benefited by the arts! It is now a UNESCO Creative City. There a lot of artists here…not just in Lower Town.

Melissa Winchester, a downtown development specialist with the City of Paducah, told me the city itself has learned some lessons from the Artist Relocation Program:

…I can tell you that you need to include your local artists in the program, maybe as “community mentors” to newcomers, we have also started working [with] an Artist Advisory Group to get ideas on events, exhibits and more. This could be a combination of old and new artists.  It is just as important to help sustain the existing artists as it is inviting in new ones, just like with businesses.

 

‘Not a Failed Mall’

The first time it really dawned on me that trying to turn Sydney’s downtown back into a shopping district was like trying to turn the Open Hearth Park back into a steel plant was when I read an article entitled “Downtown Sydney is not a failed Mall” by Rory Andrews on goCapeBreton.

Andrews makes the point that the battle between downtown shopping districts and malls is over, and malls won:

And just as cars displaced horses as the predominant hauler of stuff, malls displaced downtowns as the predominant shopping district. This isn’t just a Sydney story either. This happened in almost every major city in North America in the 20th century, as downtowns shriveled up and suburbs exploded in a symphony of Malls, Walmarts, and mid-range chain restaurants. So what did downtowns do? Much like horses, downtowns changed their definition. To my generation, a downtown is not a place to shop. Downtown is a place to live.

Downtown is a place to live — or to live and work. Maybe live upstairs and work downstairs, or work across the street, or work somewhere within walking distance (i.e. not Fort Mac).

Andrews then noted how tantalizingly close Sydney is getting to that state of affairs:

[T]he best part about this story is that we’re already close to having that. We have so many ingredients already in place to have a vibrant Downtown worth living in, like the Highland Arts Theatre, 4 different genres of bars, restaurants that serve more than club sandwiches, my nerd store, a quirky used bookstore, and a fantastic gym. Icing on the downtown cake is a variety of specialty stores, our fudge shop, a craft gallery, and a boardwalk. Sure, there are things that we could be doing better, but the transition from a shopping district to a place where things HAPPEN has already begun, and the biggest hurdle in this transition is our own mindsets, because if we keep thinking of downtown as a mall, and keep developing it exclusively for shopping, that’s all Sydney is ever going to have downtown.  A failed mall.

I especially like that Andrews focuses on how Sydney’s downtown (oh, okay, Sydney’s Waterfront District) could better serve us, the residents, rather than on how it could better serve cruise ship passengers who spend 10 minutes there before going back to whine to Holland America that there’s nothing to see. But I gotta point out — a neighborhood full of working artists would knock the socks off those cruise shippers (and maybe they’d even buy new, hand-knitted ones without noticing our “high taxes”).

So, consultants studying Downtown Sydney, meet consultants studying the creative economy — get to know each other. Grab a coffee sometime. And start thinking about how you could work together.

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