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August 3, 2009

Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Monday, August 3, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

City planners envision Starling Avenue becoming a bustling destination for people who enjoy the arts and cultural events - a draw that could spill into other neighborhoods and boost Martinsville's economy through tourism.

When it meets at 1 p.m. Tuesday, the Martinsville Planning Commission will begin discussing a proposal to establish an official arts, culture and tourism district along Starling. The proposal includes both existing and potential incentives aimed at encouraging economic growth in those realms.

Barbara Parker, director of programs for Piedmont Arts Association said she thinks there is enough local interest in the arts, as well as cultural events, to help make the city's vision a reality.

"Anything we can do to enhance the (local) quality of life ... is never a bad idea," Parker said.

Wayne Knox, the city's director of community development, noted that the avenue already is home to Piedmont Arts and the Virginia Museum of Natural History, as well as several shops.

Noting that more than 5,000 people attended performances sponsored by Piedmont Arts during its past fiscal year, Parker said she thinks demand for arts and cultural activities is increasing locally. That may be because such activities "make people forget" about economic problems, she said.

Other cities, including Harrisonburg and Staunton, have been successful in establishing arts and culture-oriented districts, Knox said.

Consultants and the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. have determined that the community has economic growth potential through tourism due to attractions such as Piedmont Arts, the museum, historic sites and furniture outlets.

The city's proposal includes incentives to help people establish businesses such as art galleries, museums, theaters, antique shops, dance studios and music-oriented clubs, as well as living space for artists.

Some of the incentives, such as "flexible zoning" letting artists live, work and sell art in the same building, as well as a partial exemption of taxes on substantially rehabilitated real estate, already exist or are being developed.

The proposal includes ideas for other types of incentives, including:

"¢ A grant program for new or expanding businesses that would create jobs in the arts, culture and tourism district but which need some financial aid. Funds could be used toward start-up costs, improving the facades of buildings, developing merchandise inventories and other needs.

"¢ A five-year rebate of 50 percent of the business professional occupation license fees paid to the city by a qualifying business, and

"¢ A voucher program to help low- to moderate-income people, including students, rent living space in the district.

Knox said the district eventually could be expanded to encompass uptown.

The Southern Virginia Artisan Center, which includes a gallery for local and regional artists and Patrick Henry Community College's School of Craft and Design, already is uptown, along with Studio 107, a communal art studio affiliated with Piedmont Arts, and Arts Etc., a store catering to artists, according to Knox and Parker.

Knox said that Tuesday, the planning commission will "start the dialogue" for creating an arts, culture and tourism district along the avenue.

"We don't have a set timetable" to establish the district, he said, noting that he expects discussions among commission members - plus research they may ask staff to do regarding additions to ideas they might present - could take a few months.

"We have to iron out how we'd do it and the cost," Knox said of the incentives. He said that Martinsville City Council is aware of city planners' desire for the district and incentives necessary to create it, but council has not seen an in-depth proposal yet.

The commission eventually will hold a public hearing, Knox said. When a firm plan for the district is decided upon, it will be given to city council for consideration, he said, adding that council also will hold a public hearing.