By Gail McCarthy
Both Gloucester and Rockport are poised to be part of a historic step in the name of cultural economic development today if they are chosen to be among the state's first communities to be designated cultural districts.
The board of the Massachusetts Cultural Council is slated to vote today on whether to approve five specific areas that have sought and been cleared for the new state designation, which does not come with any funds attached, but is seen as a means of boosting tourism through awareness of cultural activities.
"This is historic because it's the very first time in Massachusetts we have awarded state designated cultural districts," said Anita Walker, executive director of the MCC. "This is a very exciting step forward.
"A cultural district" she said, "is a compact, walkable, well-defined space within a community that uses the arts and culture and its authentic historic fabric as a way to vitalize the community and attract both new business and visitors."
The five districts to be recommended for approval today are Gloucester's Rocky Neck district, the Rockport arts district, the Fenway district in Boston, Lynn's Central Exchange district and Pittsfield Upstreet district in far western Massachusetts.
Gloucester's Rocky Neck district generally encompasses the historic artist colony of the same name that is believed to be one of the oldest continually working art colonies in the nation and extends to the Gloucester Stage Company.
Rockport's cultural district includes its historic Bearskin Neck area and extends to the other side of Rockport Music's oceanfront Shalin Liu Performance Center.
The Fenway cultural district includes the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Symphony Hall and more.
"These kinds of districts are positively what we are thinking about in terms of what is a cultural district," said Walker.
Even though there is no state or grant money tied to these designations, nevertheless, Walker said there are almost 100 communities that have started the application process.
"They are excited about this platform and tool as a way to enliven their community," said Walker. "Since there's not a pot of money, it's not a competition. But Rockport and Gloucester saw the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of something new and set the standard to be among the models for the rest of the communities."
The state passed the cultural district legislation almost two years ago, after which representatives of the state cultural council traveled the state to talk to communities about the guidelines and application process.
Meri Jenkins, a program manager with the MCC, said one benefit of the designation is that attractions within the cultural districts will reach a larger audience through their websites being linked to the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the state's tourism board.
Karen Ristuben, who has been part of the group heading up Gloucester's Rocky Neck district, said those working toward the cultural district designation have included James Duggan, the city's chief administrative officer, Andrew Burgreen of the Gloucester Stage Company and Henry Ferrini, a filmmaker and local cultural activist. He was also a founder of the Gloucester Writers Center, which is not in the district, but which will be a working partner for programming and outreach.
The Rockport cultural district effort, led by Karen Berger, also has involved a wide range of organizations representing the cultural, historical and musical organizations of the community.
If these applications are approved, officials say, the next step will be for the working groups to establish their websites and explore partnerships with other neighboring cultural organizations.
Communities can have more than one cultural district and already there is work under way for a second cultural district in Gloucester for the downtown area.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.