Terri Buckner: ArtsCenter plan has lots of potential

December 16, 2013 

Art Menius, executive director of the ArtsCenter and two of his board members, Phil Szostak and Dan Rose, have a vision for pumping up the emerging creative economy in Carrboro.

Or more accurately, they have the beginning of a vision and want the community to work with them to flesh it out. By the size of the crowd that came out for the community information session on Monday night, I’d say there’s definitely interest in the idea, although there’s also a healthy dose of skepticism.

Last year, in partnership with the town the ArtsCenter requested $50,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to plan for the creation of a cultural arts and entertainment district in downtown Carrboro. According to Menius, the district would help recruit and support more arts-related businesses in the downtown area where the nascent creative economy is already emerging.

Although the grant request wasn’t funded by NEA, they did receive smaller pools of funding from two other organizations along with a promise of additional funds from the town. They will re-submit the NEA grant application in 2014. Annette Stone and one advisory group will be holding public information sessions beginning in January on that part of the vision.

Part 2 of the vision is a new cultural arts center. In November, the ArtsCenter team presented the initial concept plan for a 50,000 square foot facility at the corner of Main and Roberson to the Board of Aldermen. Monday night’s public information session provided the community with additional details about the proposed center and initiated what we were told would be monthly sessions over the next year as the strategic plan develops.

The initial ideas for the proposed center include a small performing arts theater, artist studios, a foundry, makerspace, and incubator space for arts-related businesses. There was also a good bit of discussion about small-scale manufacturing. That’s a lot of activity for 50,000 square feet. So Part 3 of the vision will be a plan for creating a network of facilities within the proposed arts and cultural district that work in conjunction with the proposed center.

All of these parts together will build upon the years of planning for an economy that reflects the town’s dream for itself: a small, but vibrant, locally-owned business community. But the dreamers aren’t ostriches. They know that realizing the vision takes more than just pie-in-the-sky ideas; it means acknowledging the downsides of the plan.

Like all local community dialogues about development, traffic and parking are the elephants with this plan. If we build it, they will come and many of them will drive. Carrboro roads are already overtaxed and building this new center will take another parking lot out of commission. Other challenges include reducing the impact of gentrification of surrounding low-income neighborhoods (already happening), controlling the costs of redevelopment to ensure affordability, and managing the growth so as not to exceed market demand for the arts.

On a more concrete note, architect Szostak explained that the Durham Performing Arts Center (which he designed) approval required that 30 percent of all contractors had to be local. In addition, 5 percent of all subcontractors had to come from workforce development programs within the city. Contractors were responsible for establishing their own relationships with job-training programs, detention centers, and any other organization they could find to recruit those workers. And Szostak himself received the contractors’ monthly reports documenting compliance.

This is the kind of project that can bring a community together rather than tearing it apart like the conversation about whether or not we need a big box in southern Orange County. I’m rooting for its success.

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