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Placemaking opens door to economic development

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Carrie W. Gray  Guest Columnist

Carrie W. Gray
Guest Columnist

Placemaking isn’t a new concept. It is both a philosophy and a process that has been a driving force for neighborhood change – and particularly urban neighborhood change – for more than 50 years. What’s new is that people now recognize that when artists and creatives are at the table for placemaking and urban planning initiatives, they bring skills that can not only visually transform an area, but can also give that area a new identity, a pride of place and a renewed energy, making it more livable – and more lovable.

The National Endowment for the Arts’ definition, as developed by authors Ann Markusen and Anna Nicodemus, states that “in creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired.”

When people consider this definition, they often overlook or undervalue creative placemaking’s impact on “business viability and public safety.” Countless examples from across the country have demonstrated that when people implement a creative placemaking strategy in challenged neighborhoods, the two most positive residual effects – and the two that are perhaps the most difficult to quantify immediately – are an increase in private investment and a decrease in criminal activity. While it’s difficult to statistically show cause and effect, most communities understand that were it not for the creative placemaking strategy employed in that neighborhood, there would be no new residential, retail and commercial developments, as well as the resulting improved sense of safety.

In Wilmington’s Creative District, where we’re now implementing a creative placemaking strategy – first through the 7th Street Arts Bridge and Veterans Freedom Mural projects – we are already starting to see the positive economic development impacts. At the end of 2015, NextFab Studio, a makerspace headquartered in Philadelphia, announced its plans to open a location in the Creative District. NextFab CEO Evan Malone valued the Creative District plan and wanted to be part of the pioneering efforts to push investments west of the Market Street corridor, while also creating new training and making opportunities for local residents and working artists, tech innovators and creative hobbyists.

What Evan knew, based on his experience in Philadelphia, is that other investments would also follow; and he valued the opportunity to help prime the area for further economic development investments. When NextFab moved to its current location on Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue, it was tucked among a variety of commercial construction and trade businesses, with virtually no food and beverage or retail options in sight. In the three years since it first pioneered its operation there, the neighborhood has diversified greatly. While the existing residents and businesses are still there, there’s also a blossoming restaurant and retail environment that never existed before. Evan knows it’s hard to claim that NextFab was the cause for that change, but it’s hard to deny the two are inextricably linked.

And NextFab isn’t the only organization that has been inspired to invest in the Creative District. At the end of 2015, two pioneering creative entrepreneurs, John Naughton and Jason Aviles, opened the doors to Wilmington’s first co-working space for artists. Artist Ave. Station, located at 800 Tatnall St., houses two live-work apartments geared toward artists, a gallery, and work spaces where artists will be able to collaborate and create new works. In addition, Artist Ave. Station is already serving as a special event space for educational and community gatherings. While John and Jason had been formulating the idea of Artist Ave. Station for quite some time, they are certainly also excited about being close to the energy that NextFab will undoubtedly bring with it.

Examining the commercial corridors of West Ninth Street and North Tatnall Street, it is easy to see how the scattered empty storefronts could soon be filled by businesses similar to those near NextFab in Philadelphia. The opportunities are there. What’s needed are more entrepreneurial spirits like Evan, John and Jason to bring their ideas to life. The Creative District – and its many partners in government, nonprofit and community organizations – stands poised at the ready to help make that happen. The result? A more livable, lovable neighborhood where residents, creatives, downtown workers and visitors alike will want to spend their time. And that’s a win for everyone. 

Carrie W. Gray is the managing director, Wilmington Renaissance Corp.

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