Arts district expected soon for downtown Vancouver

Project in works for 17 years; aims to expand opportunities for businesses, residents

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

A project 17 years in the making appears as though it will finally come to fruition this month.

The Vancouver City Council is poised to adopt a resolution creating the Vancouver Arts District at its meeting April 28. The approval would make downtown Vancouver home to the county's first designated arts district and bring to life an idea first floated in 1997.

"I think it's wonderful," said Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver's Downtown Association. "It's been talked about for a long time. It hasn't really gone away, because it's a good idea."

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It was 17 years ago when the Vancouver Cultural Commission unveiled a "cultural plan" to enhance the city's arts and heritage programs. Creating an arts district was among the group's suggestions.

For nearly two decades, the idea remained but action never occurred. In January 2013, Maureen Andrade was hired as the executive director of North Bank Artists Community Project. Among the tasks on her long to-do list was figure out what was going on with the arts district.

Andrade held informal meetings with local galleries and other members of the Arts of Clark County board. She also met with representatives from the city and Vancouver's Downtown Association. She discovered there was a "tremendous amount" of interest in establishing a designated arts district.

To learn more

To learn more about the project, check out these websites: Vancouver Arts District; Vancouver’s Downtown Association’s First Friday Downtown.

When people are looking for a place to open a business, move their family or take a new job, they look for several things in the community, Rafferty said, including open spaces and stability in school funding.

"One bell ringer is how the community values the arts," she said.

Making downtown an arts destination also will help other businesses, such as restaurants, pubs and wine bars, Andrade said. It creates a unique vibe in downtown that will also help to draw in new businesses, she said.

"We want downtown to be just thriving," Andrade said.

With the support of the downtown community, Andrade got work on the district rolling. She worked with galleries, the downtown association and the city to craft borders for the art district, beginning with VDA's First Friday Downtown event (formally called First Friday Art Walk).

The core of First Friday is along Main Street; district planners expanded from there, Andrade said. South to Sixth Street to include Firehouse Glass Studio. West to Esther Street to encompass Esther Short Park, which hosts numerous arts events. East to Fort Vancouver Way, where the Fort Vancouver National Historic Reserve has goals to incorporate art into the site. And north to 15th Street, the northern-most border of downtown.

The First Friday Downtown event May 2 will serve as the official roll-out of the Vancouver Arts District, Andrade said.

Andrade would like to see the arts district build on the success of the monthly event. She said she hopes the district will lead to more galleries, theater and dance groups moving to downtown. She said she also would like to see more entertainment opportunities that don't require crossing the Columbia River.

The downtown association plans to commission and install another piece of public art in the district, tentatively at 11th and Main streets. Work on that project should begin in the next few months, Rafferty said.

And further down the road, Rafferty said she hopes to see a performing arts center in Vancouver.

"One day, it will be here, and it will be such a welcome addition to our downtown," she said. "And this is a step in that direction."

The cost of establishing the district is a joint effort. The local galleries are covering the costs to create and maintain the arts district website. The downtown association is helping to promote the new district. The city will pay for the signs at various entries to the district and new toppers for the street signs, but the city hasn't determined the exact cost for the signs, said Jan Bader, the city's program and policy development manager.

Andrade and Rafferty said they are happy to see the partnerships finally lead to an official downtown arts district, even if it took a little longer than expected.

"I think that it's just another great indicator of what this community values," Rafferty said. "It's important for a community to value its creativity in all forms."