Smithfield an Arts and Cultural District

Published 11:12 am Wednesday, February 7, 2018

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

When the Virginia General Assembly opened up a new avenue for economic development, the town of Smithfield jumped on it.

Fueled by Arts Center @ 319 Director Sheila Gwaltney and Tourism Director Judy Winslow, the Smithfield Town Council passed an ordinance in 2010 allowing for an Arts and Cultural District to be incorporated with the already existing historic district in downtown Smithfield.  

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The ordinance allowed for several fees to be waived or reduced for arts-related businesses, such as zoning permit and business license fees, as well as fees for sandwich board signs. 

For Smithfield, it was a cultural as well as economic strategy. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“People who visit arts destinations stay longer and spend more,” said Rick Bodson with Smithfield 2020, which also applied to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development’s commercial district affiliate program in conjunction with the arts and cultural district initiative. The DHCD Main Street program addresses downtown revitalization efforts. 

Smithfield 2020, made up of business owners and town and Isle of Wight County officials, seeks to enhance the economic and cultural vitality of the historic district, which includes a matching grant program for façade and landscape improvements. 

Arts also add to the livability of a community, from professionals to those who enjoy attending arts venues and events, said Gwaltney. 

Gwaltney said she was inspired by the city of Harrisonburg, which had led the initiative for the arts and cultural district designation with the General Assembly.  

Harrisonburg was the first locality in Virginia to establish a district, and since it did so in 2001, the city has added 11 arts-related businesses to the initial five or six at the beginning of the effort, said Brian Shull, economic development director for the city of Harrisonburg. 

To attract arts-related businesses, Harrisonburg offered to waive business and professional license fees for the first three years, and also the admission tax, if applicable. 

The goal was to create a strategy that would market those arts-related businesses as a unified whole, Shull said, adding that the city also expanded the boundary of the district in 2016.

The Virginia Tourism blog highlights 13 arts and cultural districts in the state, from large cities such as Norfolk and Hampton, to smaller localities, such as Marion and Chincoteague. 

Venues listed include museums, arts studios, theaters and more. 

Bodson said that while the arts and cultural district designation hasn’t attracted businesses directly involved in the arts, such as visual arts, music or performance, a number of related businesses have set up shop downtown, to include Relics, Maggie Casey’s, Amicus Curiae 1799, as well as artsy offshoots, such as Wharf Hill Brewing Co. and the Smithfield Winery. 

As for the future, Bodson said the arts and cultural district is integrated and tied closely with the historic district, as well as tourism, the Arts League, and its four programs, as well as Smithfield 2020. 

“Events are organized, businesses attracted and initiatives that can contribute to the economic and cultural vitality of the historic district are continuously identified, evaluated and championed,” Bodson said. 

For Gwaltney, the arts are more than a driver of the economy. 

“The entire community benefits from having the arts conveniently available to residents.  I’ve taught drawing and painting to an adult who was taking art lessons at the recommendation of their doctor as an exercise to combat the effects of Parkinson’s disease.  Learning new skills in painting and music can help keep older adults’ mind agile and engaged.  Young children may view artistic pursuits as just enjoyable ‘play,’ but studies concretely show children who engage in the arts do better in school too,” she said.

Gwaltney said the Arts League is looking to add a juried art show, an outdoor art show and at getting regional and state artists to display their works as a way to add a new layer to the already existing attractions. 

Isle of Wight Arts League Board member Kim Pugh said the Arts League is also looking at offering a drawing for tickets to the town’s art venues in exchange for membership to the League. 

Editor’s note: This is the final story in a series focusing on the arts in Smithfield and Isle of Wight County.  {/mprestriction}