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Williamstown To Apply For Cultural Designation

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The selectboard of Williamstown recently voted to allow the town to pursue a Cultural District Designation from the state of Massachusetts designed to promote economic development through the arts.

On Wednesday evening, the Williamstown selectboard gave the go-ahead for town residents to seek out a Cultural District Designation from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The designation is not a monetary award but includes signage and serves as a badge of honor in recognition of community efforts to promote the arts and humanities.

Since the Cultural Districts Initiative was kicked off in 2011, 17 districts have been designated in communities across the state, including locations in Pittsfield and Shelburne Falls.

Fran Lapidus, a Williamstown resident, is working with town government to apply for the program and to determine where the district would be located.

"It will be a testament to all the great resources that our community has," said Lapidus.

Lapidus said that she believes central Williamstown would be a good-fit for a Cultural District designation due to the town’s architectural preservation and commitment to the arts, demonstrated by popular destinations like the Clark Art Institute and Williams College Museum of Art.

Last year, a portion of Pittsfield’s downtown was the first community west of the Connecticut River to receive a Cultural District designation through the MCC. The Upstreet Cultural District includes theaters, restaurants, historical architecture, and hosts community events including the monthly 3rd Thursdays street fairs, which draw thousands of visitors during the spring and summer.

Megan Whilden, Cultural Development Director for the City of Pittsfield, said that in addition to allowing the city to promote itself, the designation has restored a sense of community pride among city residents.

"We're an example of a community that has transformed itself through the arts and having that recognized through this designation, which was not easy to get, was really important for us," said Whilden.

The application process for Williamstown, in addition to mapping out the district, also involves community discussions between various stakeholders including town government, residents, local businesses and organizations. The Massachusetts Cultural Council also makes visits to applicant districts.

Meri Jenkins, a Program Coordinator at the MCC, said the application process alone serves to strengthen bonds between community stakeholders towards a common goal.

"That conversation in the communities we've been involved in so far...has been a very rich one. They're obligated to develop goals with a five-year horizon and I think that has leant some excitement to what folks may already be doing around community development strategies, but this may be another piece that may be brought to the table," said Jenkins.

Jenkins said by the end of June, an analysis will be completed on the statewide economic impact of the cultural districts in Massachusetts.

And Fran Lapidus said she thinks Williamstown has a great shot of becoming home to the next designation.

"I'm happy to get the ball rolling," said Lapidus.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.