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Pittsfield to Hold First Meeting to Discuss Downtown "Cultural District" Application

By Patrick Donges


Pittsfield, MA – The city will hold its first public meeting on their planned application to establish a downtown "cultural district" on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts.

The program, meant to help recognize and organize specific neighborhoods across the state as places where the arts and cultural venues play a large part in economic growth and activity, was established by an act of the Massachusetts legislature last year.

The application process was opened to municipalities this April. Meri Jenkins, manager of the cultural districts initiative at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, describes the program.

"The program is designed really to foster economic activity in relationship to the cultural assets within a community."

"One of the things we know is that a thriving creative sector is one of the Commonwealth's most powerful economic development assets. This in a sense brings some of our programs that we're already running together under one umbrella."

Jenkins noted that Massachusetts is not the only state with a cultural district program; Maryland has had a similar program for the last ten years.

Right now municipalities are only applying for a designation.

While there are already state programs in place to aid cultural development, such as "complete streets" policy and film tax credits, the cultural districts legislation was approved to be budget neutral, meaning there is no state funding attached to the program. However, Jenkins said that fact hasn't stifled interest from towns and cities.

"We've held some information sessions on a regional basis, including Pittsfield, and so far we've had 80 communities represented. People can go online and look at the application process; representatives from 58 communities have created profiles in our online application."

Pittsfield is one of those communities showing a definite interest establishing a district, in part because the city has already taken steps to increase their cultural economy. Megan Whilden is Pittsfield's Director of Tourism and Cultural Development.

"The legislation was in fact actually modeled in part on Pittsfield. About five years ago we established a downtown Pittsfield arts overlay district."

"The kinds of activities and progress that have happened in our downtown since then I think was very inspirational to both the legislature and the Massachusetts Cultural Council to move forward on this."

Whilden said the program is designed to make municipalities form coalitions with businesses and non-profits to develop their own unique district, a process not unfamiliar to Pittsfield, which collaborates with several organizations through their cultural development department.

"This is a further step along the road towards providing a structure for cultural entrepreneurship for the creative economy and most importantly for a number of different organizations, both non-profit and for profit to work together."

"Traditionally each organization goes after its own grant and it holds it to its chest and decides what to do with it, but the Massachusetts Cultural Council I believe has consciously worked to encourage and actually require collaborations."

Jenkins echoed those statements, adding that the program will be a chance for residents to take ownership and decide how they want to brand and market their cultural assets.

"We're asking that they form a partnership of organizations in the district, and not just cultural organizations."

"This really does attach itself to the way people feel about the place they live in and what they would like to see happen there. I think this where the arts play such an important part; it's what makes a community tick, and it's also what makes it distinctive."