Don’t squeeze the arts out of downtown

After 36 years in the old Baird Center, the Acrosstown Repertory Theater is giving up its lease and looking for a new home.

Idea 1: Build investments around local strengths.

Say, why do we go downtown anyway?

Well, it had a Hooters for about five minutes. But, really, if you want cookie cutter franchises, go to Butler or Celebration, where there are parking lots the size of Oklahoma.

So why go downtown?

It’s got some cool local restaurants, no doubt. And night spots where you can drink and dance until nearly dawn…if you are young enough to do that sort of thing.

In addition to drinking and dining, a lot of us go downtown to catch at play or flick at The Hipp.

Or to attend a performance at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater.

The Hipp will still be around, hopefully. But after 36 years at the old Baird center – now rebranded South Main Station – the ART is giving up its lease and decamping to new digs elsewhere after its final season performance of “Hamlet” later this month.

“We’ve seen it coming for a while,” Carolyn Salt, ART president, told me. “We always knew this was a happening place. The rest of the world caught on and this area has become very gentrified.”

The Acrosstown was born downtown four decades ago. Its first home was the old Star Garage, which it had to vacate after the city made other plans for the building.

It ended up in a Baird warehouse, with favorable rental rates, at a time when there was little or nothing else happening on South Main.

In that regard the ART is following the Actors Warehouse, Gainesville’s African-American theater, which had to give up its lease on a repurposed church just a few blocks from City Hall. It’s now performing in a warehouse off north Main.

Nor are those departures the only indications that our “gentrifying” downtown may not much longer be, well, art-affordable. The city’s new fire station displaced an eclectic artist colony that was just beginning to take root. The building that formerly housed Gainesville artist Ellie Blair’s studio is now a convenience store. The Somewhere Along The Way gallery also closed its doors.

Listen, we are having a robust discussion about a new downtown strategic plan. And if it plays out the way it should, property values are going to go nowhere but up in the coming years.

Which raises a crucial question, strategy wise:

What happens if, or when, downtown becomes such a hot commodity that the arts and culture get squeezed out of the market?

One might imagine that finding ways to preserve, and indeed, amplify the presence of the arts downtown ought to be integral to the strategic planning process. But so far, that has not been the case: The first report by strategic plan consultant MKSK makes only passing references to the importance of the arts to downtown’s future.

That’s an omission the city may come to regret.

“As the economic impact of arts and cultural programming has become better documented, the connection between a city’s economic growth, its artist community, and its ability to provide housing and studio stock to support that community becomes an increasingly pressing issue.”

This from the on-line magazine Curbed in an article headlined: “To support priced-out arts communities, cities look to housing and studio support.”

How to strategize a downtown renaissance that won’t banish artists, actors, musicians and other creative types to distant warehouses? It’s a critical question that begs answers.

Because even luring a Cheesecake Factory downtown isn’t going to fill that void.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at ron@freegnv.com

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