Rock Hill plans for first state-recognized cultural district

From the Rock Hill Herald:

Story by Anna Douglas

Rock Hill may soon become the first city in South Carolina to have a state-recognized cultural district in its downtown area.

The Arts Council of York County has been working with local and state leaders the past several months to apply for cultural district designation through the South Carolina Arts Commission. The initiative was approved by state lawmakers late last year.

Gaining recognition for downtown Rock Hill as a cultural district should attract visitors, businesses and foot traffic to the area, said Debra Heintz, Arts Council executive director. The application for the designation is backed by the Rock Hill City Council, but the Arts Council will manage the district and its marketing efforts.

Heintz said the establishment of a downtown cultural district fits into other efforts underway in the area and in the neighboring textile corridor along West White Street. There, city officials and a private developer have plans to build a high-tech business park, called “Knowledge Park,” along with residential, entertainment and retail buildings.

Recent downtown development – which includes a new park, four-story office building, street upgrades and a proposed apartment building – and the future Knowledge Park aim to attract the “creative class” to Rock Hill, Heintz said. The term creative class generally refers to young people or young families who have creative or high-tech jobs, are college-educated and seek to be engaged with activities in their home city.

“These kinds of folks look for lively entertainment options” like films, festivals, live music and art, Heintz said.

Already, she said, downtown Rock Hill has a diverse art and culture scene. With a new state cultural district distinction, she said, the Arts Council will help brand, market and promote the downtown area as a hub for creative activity.

Potential benefits of the new district classification, Heintz said, include attracting more businesses to downtown and increasing the city’s chances when applying for grant money to support local art and cultural activities. The goal is for downtown Rock Hill to be “the center of cultural, artistic and economic activity.”

The district’s downtown boundaries, if approved by the state, are Elizabeth Lane to Dave Lyle Boulevard, running along Main, White and Black streets.

This week, the City Council signed off on the cultural district plan, with several council members expressing excitement and support for the Arts Council’s goals. Heintz said the city has not been asked to spend any money on the district.

At some point, she said, money for marketing or public arts may be available from the state, but not yet.

Rock Hill is an early adopter and will serve as a “pilot site” for the new state designation, said Rusty Sox of the South Carolina Arts Commission. Sox is the program director for the new cultural designation initiative.

Four cities or towns, including Rock Hill, are working on applying for the designation. Next month, Sox said, the state commission’s board could meet and approve Rock Hill’s application, making it the first city in the state to earn the designation.

Less than 15 states nationwide have a program for establishing cultural districts in cities and towns, Sox said. South Carolina has started its program at a time when “there’s not a lot of money to put behind it,” he said.

For now, the main goal of the district designation is “all about image and identity,” he said. In the future, Sox hopes the Arts Commission will be able to partner with other state agencies to provide funding or other support for local cultural districts.

The various goals of designated cultural districts include attracting artists and creative entrepreneurs to South Carolina communities. Proponents of the program say cultural districts encourage economic development, foster local cultural identities, and attract tourists and promote contributions to public art.

In preparing Rock Hill’s application for the district designation, the Arts Council made a “cultural inventory” of facilities and programs in downtown. Major sites on the list include the Arts Council’s Center for the Arts and its Community Performance Arts Center; the York County Culture and Heritage Museum’s Children’s Museum on Main Street; the outdoor amphitheater on Black Street; and the new Fountain Park on Elizabeth Lane. In total, more than a dozen buildings or programs were listed on the inventory.

As part of the application process, officials with the state Arts Commission visited Rock Hill last month to evaluate arts and cultural sites.

If approved, Rock Hill’s cultural district designation would be in effect for five years, with the Arts Council and others tracking investments and growth in the area. Cities with cultural districts will be asked to track the number of visitors to the area, the building occupancy rate, tourism activity, sales tax collections, employment figures, and the volume of art-based industries.