Vineyard Haven cultural district is in the works

Martha's Vineyard Commission planner Christine Flynn and Martha's Vineyard Museum executive director David Nathans stand next to a draft map of the proposed Vineyard Haven cultural district. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Approximately 40 people met at the Vineyard Haven Library on March 7, for a preliminary meeting to outline the establishment of a Vineyard Haven Cultural District as part of a state wide program the Massachusetts Cultural Council launched in April 2011.

Arts Martha’s Vineyard (formerly the Martha’s Vineyard Arts and Culture Collaborative), a three-year-old organization, is spearheading the local cultural district initiative.

David Nathans, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and a member of the Arts MV steering committee, gave a brief presentation on the proposal under consideration. Mr. Nathan explained in his introduction, that Arts MV as a group “has for a couple of years tried to create greater awareness and collaboration among a whole variety of organizations.”

Last fall, Arts MV hosted a series of talks on creative economy and sponsored the first Fall for the Arts celebration which brought a number of local arts organizations together for a week of events at the Harbor View Hotel.

Communities must apply to the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Cultural Districts program. To date, the program has designated 14 cultural districts throughout the state. According to the Mass Cultural Council website, “Cultural districts can help local arts, humanities, and science organizations improve the quality and range of their public programs so that more local families can benefit from them. They can enhance the experience for visitors and thus attract more tourist dollars and tax revenue. And they can attract artists, cultural organizations and entrepreneurs of all kinds – enhancing property values and making communities more attractive.”

If the Vineyard Haven plan is approved, the state will provide official signage which the town can post within the designated area. Mr. Nathans explained that the real benefit has farther reaching potential than promoting the area within the Island. If established, the Vineyard Haven Cultural District would have a searchable online presence among other designated districts on state sponsored websites, and be included in marketing materials.

Mr. Nathans explained that Vineyard Haven was chosen in large part because of the availability of year round ferry service in that town. He also noted that the clustering of arts organizations, galleries and designer boutiques in the downtown Vineyard Haven area made it a natural choice.

However, he stressed that the Vineyard is not limited to just one cultural district. He envisions other Island towns establishing state recognized zones in the future. He mentioned the town of Cape Ann which has three separate cultural districts.

The proposed cultural district would bind institutions like the Vineyard Playhouse, the Bunch of Grapes bookstore, the Vineyard Haven Library and the MV Film Center together with art galleries and local arts related businesses (like designer boutiques and jewelers) into one unified area. According to Mr. Nathans, other types of businesses within the district – such as restaurants and B & B’s – would also benefit and he speculated that property values could be positively affected.

The advantage would mainly be one of marketing the area – an effort that according to the organizers would help the businesses involved as well as the Island as a whole.

At Thursday’s gathering Ann Smith, executive director of the Featherstone Center for the Arts and the chairman of the Arts MV steering committee provided some statistics. She said that the arts account for 4.2 percnt of the Martha’s Vineyard economy, while the larger creative economy – which includes things like architecture, interior design, graphic design and film – represents 10.2 percent.

“In thinking of goals for this year we considered what low hanging fruit could we pursue that would be helpful for the arts,” said Mr. Nathan’s in a post presentation interview. “It [the cultural district] seems like a natural as a way to get more people locally and off Island to realize that there are a lot of things of a cultural nature to do here.”

Martha’s Vineyard Commission GIS coordinator, Chris Seidel, a member of Arts MV, displayed a large map that she created indicating the outline of areas lying within one-quarter mile, a half-mile and one mile of the Steamship Authority building. Some landmarks were highlighted and attendees were encouraged to mark the location of their businesses on on the map.

Mr. Nathans said that the ideal size for the district is four to five square blocks which encompass a “specific, walkable geographic area” He speculated that the plan may include the area from Five Corners to the library and from Main Street to the Vineyard Playhouse (Church Street between Main and Williams St) or possibly as far as the Hebrew Center (between Franklin and Pine Streets)

The organizations discussed as possibly being included in the plan were the Vineyard Playhouse, the MV Film Center, the Vineyard Haven Library, the Gannon & Benjamin shipyard, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, the new MV Museum (once it’s established) and some local houses of worship. Representatives of the Playhouse, the Film Center, the Island Theater Workshop (who frequently use the Katherine Cornell Theater on Spring Street), the Martha’s Vineyard Times and local business owners and artists were in attendance at the meeting. Many of those with a vested interest in the plan were vocal in their support.

The purpose of the meeting, said Mr. Nathans, was, “To get feedback from some of the stakeholders. To see if they thought it was a good idea. In essence to get them to help put it together.

“We will do another meeting probably in three or four weeks from now and get more specific about what we have to do on the public side to get the resolution passed by the selectman.”

Mr. Nathans said the next steps include building a core group, developing a map, holding a public meeting and then, if the selectman agree, the town submitting an application to the state.

In comments following the meeting Mr. Nathans said, “I think it’s an easy sell but at the same time we need others to get on this team. We need enough players on the field to make it happen. The team was too small but I think we’ve got them now.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Christine Flynn created a map of the proposed arts district. Martha’s Vineyard Commission GIS coordinator Chris Seidel created the map.