Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, El Paso and Galveston have state-certified cultural districts. So do Lubbock, Denison, Abilene and San Angelo. Houston has four. Even Alpine, Winnsboro and Clifton are on the Texas map as communities with cultural districts.
But not Waco.
Despite its museums, historic buildings and sites, scenic riverside areas, forested park and a downtown stirring to life with restaurants, shops and art destinations, Waco is not one of the 24 Texas cities and communities that the Texas Commission on the Arts has granted cultural district designation.
That may change within the next year as Waco Arts Alliance members consider moving toward applying for such recognition.
What it would mean, supporters say, is adding another tool in the kit used to promote tourism, stimulate economic development and focus attention on quality-of-life issues.
For some, simply going through the application process could spell benefits for Waco’s cultural scene and its future.
“Absolutely,” said Linda Hatchel, a TCA commissioner and a Waco Symphony Association board member. “Even a rejected application can come back better.”
Fiona Bond, a coordinator for the Waco Arts Alliance, points to the experience of the city of Dundee in her native Scotland in using the arts and arts-related businesses to rebuild its economy.
“Arts is an engine for economic development. I think Waco knows that, but hasn’t lived that,” she said.
The arts alliance is a fluid forum of arts organization and museum representatives, downtown businesspeople and artists, city tourism officials and Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce members.
It began about four years ago under the aegis of the Chamber of Commerce with the intent of encouraging arts and culture in Waco, promoting entrepreneurialism and adding professional insights to community discussions of policy and infrastructure.
Presently on a summer hiatus, the group meets monthly to share ideas, announce events and discuss subjects pertaining to Waco arts and economic development.
That makes it the appropriate group to spearhead efforts to win cultural district designation, said Chris McGowan, the chamber’s director of urban development and a Waco Arts Alliance coordinator.
“I think we can come up with a framework that connects the dots and come up with a strategy,” he said.
TCA Deputy Director Jim Bob McMillan, who oversees the commission’s cultural district program, said those districts are meant to help a community boost its economy through its distinctive arts and cultural resources. In some places, historic buildings might be that distinctive; in others, music, art galleries and shops or a neighborhood of working artists.
“It’s really different in every community. It takes on different personalities,” he said.
Cultural districts need a definable geography. A working rule of thumb, given a district’s potential attraction for visitors, is walkability, or ease of transportation, said McMillan, who spoke to arts and downtown representatives in March about the state program.
Districts don’t have taxing authority, but communities and organizations can leverage a cultural district designation in grant and funding applications.
“It’s like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” he said.
There also is some state money available for signs.
A panel of professionals evaluates applications, with the commission making the final decision, McMillan said. Evaluators not only look closely at the economic arguments supporting an application, but a plan and funding to maintain such a district, he said. Presently, 10 communities have applications in process.
Clifton won its cultural district designation five years ago for its concentration of Western artists like Bruce Greene, Martin Grelle, Tony Eubanks and George Boutwell; its downtown galleries and shops; a historical movie theater; and its Bosque Art Center and Bosque Memorial museum.
Museum director George Larson, president of the Clifton Arts Association, said the district helped the town of 3,420 residents:
Establish Clifton’s reputation as an art-friendly community.
Attract new artists to town.
Open local residents’ eyes to what was in their community.
Waco’s diverse offerings — museums, arts venues, history, scenic natural areas, downtown shops and restaurants and more — may make drawing or defining a district a challenge, but that variety of attractions often serves as a city selling point, said Liz Taylor, director of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Waco is really diverse in that sense. It’s not dominated by one particular theme. It’s not all about Western culture. It’s not all about historic homes. It’s not all about one particular focus,” she said.
Openness to ideas
That mix of arts, culture and business can create what Waco Downtown Development Corp. Director Megan Henderson considers an important spinoff of a cultural district: an openness to new ideas that in turn feeds a creativity she sees as essential in a future economy.
“The idea of Waco as a community intentionally embracing and fostering a cultural district is tremendously important,” she said. “You don’t get a creative synergy in a vacuum.”
Young, creative professionals tend to stay in a place where they are stimulated by entertainment and cultural offerings as well as entrepreneurial opportunities, and Henderson sees a nucleus forming in downtown Waco.
“One of the ways that Waco has astonished me in the time I’ve been here is the incredible engagement of young creatives,” Henderson said.
She pointed to the somewhat spontaneous emergence of “Wacotown,” a positive promotion of Waco from those who live and work here, as an example of that engagement.
As such, it’s important that a cultural district is nurtured and maintained.
“There needs to be a collective community will that this will grow and shepherd it in the future,” she said. “I don’t think it’s about the destination.”
The TCA timeline for cultural district application requires that communities submit a letter of intent by January, with a full application in by June.
That may seem plenty of time, particularly since the Waco Hippodrome, considered a linchpin of downtown’s cultural scene, has yet to reopen and several restaurants, shops and galleries have not marked their first anniversary.
But McGowan sees a lot of work ahead: picking a task force to pursue an application, defining a Waco district’s boundaries, creating and staffing a body to manage and market a cultural district, finding funding sources and the like.
“I think we’ve pulled together the arts community in Waco that hasn’t been working together in the past,” McGowan said. “I think we can take that to the next level.”