Springfield has seen a flash of investments in projects ranging from the large, such as MGM and Union Station's final steps, to the small, like storefront revitalization on Main Street. As our community evolves, arts and culture must be part of the economic development engine. Cities that are attractive to millennials and boomers are based on more than bricks and mortar. These populations want more life in their streets, and they want it in an embedded, multimedia manner that only arts can deliver.
Last month, the Massachusetts Cultural Council brought Mark Davy, of FutureCity, into the Springfield Central Cultural District to discuss the importance of the arts with economic development leaders. Davy's UK-based company is the world's leader in "placemaking" (a term to express creative expression in the public realm). Davy discussed how to integrate arts in upward Massachusetts cities – like has been done in London, San Francisco, and New York City. This was the beginning of his first project in the U.S., but he has worked in over 300 cities worldwide.
The atmosphere in Davy's room was electric. Attendees were not only the typical brainstorming developers, but artists and creators, too. Davy showed examples of newly constructed subway stations "activated" with large-scale sculpture. These installations not only enhanced the space, but had the greater effect of increasing foot traffic. Due to increased pedestrian activity, visitors felt safer in the stations. Eventually, developers determined there might be a strong demand for housing and invested in adjacent vacant lots.
Art does come at a price, however, as the developer who paid for the London's Royal Ballet to move into the first floor of his building would explain, but also pays dividends. The new hybrid ballet/residential building is at capacity, and the owner has 30,000 audience members pass through his doors annually, driving up the market rate. Prior to this cultural intervention, lofts were seen as average apartments in a subpar neighborhood. They are now highly sought-after units for young professionals. This proves that art has the ability to transcend perception of place and develop a new, positive outlook on large populations.
Individuals and organizations in Springfield have already started a movement for cultural change. The lively and active plazas at 1350 and 1550 Main Street with sculpture, visual art, and music, and the utility box mural program which encourages walking throughout the Cultural District and Metro Center are small investments but represent the first steps towards greatness. But there is work to be done. Historic Union Station does not have allocated funding for public art, and Riverfront Park's landscape begs for color and movement. These are opportunities that demand our attention.
As we move into a new era, we cannot make the mistake of overlooking arts and culture as a driver for economic development. Art should not be an elective, tacked on to projects after the fact, but included from the beginning as an integral part of our daily lives.
Morgan Drewniany is the executive director of the Springfield Central Cultural District.