(AP Photo: Paulette Mentor of Mentor House Gallery in Paducah, Kentucky.)
During the 1980s and 1990s, the Lower Town neighborhood of Paducah, Kentucky experienced a steady rise in drug use, crime and blight. Despite its adjacency to Paducah’s healthy downtown, the area languished. Fifty-one percent of residents lived in poverty, and dilapidated or abandoned housing was commonplace. About 70% of residents were renters, and landlords weren’t held accountable for substandard structures. Then in 2000, with help from a local artist, Paducah officials deployed an innovative strategy.
They created the Artist Relocation Program, which enticed artists nationwide to move to Lower Town. The City of Paducah began purchasing properties from willing owners and reselling them to artists for as little as $1. Residential properties were rezoned for retail. And, despite the neighborhood’s historic disinvestment, a local bank offered new artist-owners home improvement loans that sometimes exceeded appraised value by 300%.
Armed with the promise of improving their personal economies, about 50 artists agreed. Fifteen years later, the 33-block-area has been transformed and is part of a larger, thriving arts and culture scene in Paducah and surrounding McCracken County, Kentucky, says City of Paducah Planning Director Steve Ervin.
Today, properties in Lower Town fetch market value or more. A scant few still need to be fixed up. The neighborhood is home to 16 art galleries and numerous residences that also feature retail galleries or working studios. An additional 11 full-time artists live in the neighborhood.
The impact has been tremendous, Ervin says.
“When the plan was originally adopted, it was [meant] to create an artist community and also to rehabilitate housing,” Ervin says. “We’ve seen infrastructure improvements and the stabilization of a neighborhood.”
The western Kentucky city of 26,000 now sees $40 million in annual economic impact from the arts. Paducah’s Artists Relocation Program won multiple national awards, and its officials have advised numerous cities on how to establish similar programs. The city is no longer in the business of relocating artists. Instead, it is concentrating on continuing to strengthen Lower Town as a cultural district.
As it is around the country, finding reasonably priced studio and residential space for career artists in Baton Rouge is an issue. However, new ideas concerning affordable space are starting to emerge.
Former Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge president and CEO Eric Holowacz is part of a group working on possible space for artists in Beauregard Town in a pair of privately owned buildings at Europe and Royal streets.
According to Holowacz, the preliminary idea is to convert the units into a “Creative HQ” that could offer shared space for artists, creative industry professionals and emerging or small cultural organizations. The buildings feature both dedicated rooms and space for shared or “hot” desks, says Holowacz.
During his tenure at the Arts Council, Holowacz brought up the idea of converting the Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters on Mayflower Street in Beauregard Town into a “creative campus” anchored by an Artspace USA live-work development. Artspace USA is a firm based in Minneapolis that develops spaces for the arts through the adaptive reuse of other structures.