Alliance Discusses Zoning Initiatives

By Kevin J. Wong

On July 10th, the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations held a town meeting with arts leaders and politicians at the Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows/Corona Park. For over 28 years, the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations has aided community cultural organizations with various resources and tools. They also mobilize national and local arts agencies to develop both community support and public policy for issues affecting the arts.

Judith Kaufman Weiner, Executive Director of the Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations, and Senator Serphin Maltese discussed the New York State Culture Zone Project at the town meeting, which was co-sponsored by Senator Maltese and Assemblyman Joseph Morelle. With the project still in its planning stages, the Alliance initiated this meeting to inform its members of the project's goals. Those organizing the project desired to gain constructive feedback following their presentation, which would help them amend or tailor the project to suit a variety of artists' and communities' needs. A wide range of people attended the town meeting, and areas as diverse as Syracuse and New York City were both able to express their differing views

Jeffrey Rosenstock, Executive Director of Queens Theatre in the Park, opened the town meeting by welcoming Senator Maltese and stating his pleasure that the Queens Theatre was the location of the Alliance's town meeting. He then introduced Judith Kaufman Weiner to the stage. After acknowledging Richard Schwartz, chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, Ms. Weiner related, in broad strokes, the goals of the culture zone initiative. Stating that a large portion of the original draft had recently been invalidated, such as gaining funds from gambling, Ms. Weiner briefly explained the reasons for creating the initiative and then described the project's goals.

The idea for a zone project came out of think tanks that the Alliance held in February 2001 and February 2002. At these meetings, they decided that in order to get resources for the arts in New York State, the arts would have to "take control of its own destiny." The Alliance then published a research report entitled Challenges and Opportunity: A Post 9/11 Assessment of the New York State Arts Community, and the Alliance created the idea for Culture Zones out of this report

For the idea of Culture Zones to succeed, those spearheading the project decided on two fundamental things. Firstly, those creating economic development would have to do it without depleting or re-allocating existing resources. With a flailing economy and the government putting a minimal amount of money into the arts to begin with, the state could not afford to indulge exorbitant expenses. Secondly, the project would need the support of the individual artists and theater companies in New York State communities, and it would rely on the "leading capacity of individual organizations."

A Cultural Zone Council would lead the Culture Zone Project, and the Governor of New York would sign off on appointed members. The Alliance based the Cultural Zone Project on a model conceived by the New York State Development Zone, and it calls for one cultural zone per county in New York State. By creating these zones in areas where arts are nonexistent or in areas where the arts are struggling, the Culture Zone Project aims to attract artists to the zoned areas, provide "equitable" access for tourists, theatergoers and those not familiar with the arts and also encourage citizens within the zoned areas to get involved in the arts community. By doing so, the Alliance hopes that self-sustaining, "permanent" art districts will eventually develop in New York State.

The project includes many benefits for both arts organizations and citizens within the zone. For instance, tax incentives would be given to landlords in the zones that provide low-market rates to nonprofit arts organizations, cultural groups and artists. The state government would also give tax incentives to developers in the area that set aside spaces for the arts and tax credits to individuals or businesses that make contributions to arts projects in the zone. Aside from gaining visibility in the arts industry as a "community and economic development stimulator," an arts organization would gain assistance by funded and fundable job development programs. Small arts-related, for-profit businesses would be privy to low interest or no interest loans. Lastly, arts organizations that possess "performing and exhibition facilities" would have reduced electric and other energy costs.

Ms. Kaufman finished her presentation of the Culture Zones Project by pointing out the strong backing that the project has in the state legislature, noting especially that it has gotten strong bi-partisan support. She discussed the long -term goals of the project, and aside from currently "stimulating local communities and building capacity for the arts," she sees it as a "permanent fix" for arts revenue and jobs. She proclaimed the zoning project to be a wide-scoped program that the Alliance is building for the "not for and for profit sector[s]" respectively, and then asked for questions and recommendations from the audience members.

Out of the many questions that were asked of Ms. Weiner and Senator Maltese during the question/answer session, three major issues pushed themselves to the forefront of discussion. The first major issue concerned how the state would fund the project if not through gambling. Senator Maltese affirmed that those issues are working themselves out, and based on past experience, he believes the project will get funding from the New York State legislature. He claimed that funding mechanisms are in their "formative phases," and they would hopefully have a "bottom line" by this coming January.

To help this funding legislation pass, Senator Maltese urged people to spread the word that the project exists. Senator Maltese pushed the Alliance's good reputation, and he pointed out their foresight that the tragedies on September 11 would accelerate the economic problems present among artists. He claimed that the best way to get the Culture Zones Project funded and supported by the legislature is to popularize their cause and make people "aware" that the legislation exists to begin with.

The second major issue is the cultural education that will be required for some of the communities where these zones will be located. Amy Brockway, who works in theater in rural upstate New York, stated that the community she works in is just starting to realize the profits to be gained from an arts community. She feels, like many others, that a state sanctioned culture zone could cause resentment and suspicion. To this, Ms. Weiner emphasized the need to educate these people about the cultural zones. Ms. Weiner stated that an "informed public is business," and by encouraging other businesses to collaborate with the arts, they could have a symbiotic, profitable relationship with artistic newcomers.

Amy Chin, Executive Director for the New York Chinese Cultural Center, suggested creating incentives, or "brownie points," for the "culturally imperiled economic poor." She believes this would help get them involved in the project, and she iterated the importance of giving certain ailing areas of New York State priority over others.

Other suggestions emphasized the need to create incentives for and educate artists themselves. The artistic director of Mudbone, a theater company in Harlem, stated his skepticism for the Culture Zones Project. He related a personal account about a grassroots marketplace in Harlem that was thriving until major corporate chains forced shopkeepers out of their "development zone." He then compared this to what might happen if state government "cultural zones" moved into communities where independent artists worked. However, Senator Maltese attempted to quell such fears. He guaranteed that these Cultural Zones would be sensitive to the needs of individual artists in the community, and he reemphasized the need of education for those who do not know about or are suspicious of the program.

The third major issue was how many cultural zones would be created per area. Although the original zoning plan called for one culture zone per county, many people at the meeting dismissed this as impractical. They pointed out that New York City's arts community is very diverse, and one cultural zone would not be a sufficient representative. A man from Westchester had a similar complaint, and he said that the artistic scope of the Westchester area could not be represented by a single cultural zone. Paul Nagle, the Arts Liaison for City Councilman Alan Gerson, suggested using other measures of determining the number and distribution of cultural zones, such as population or assembly districts. In response to statements such as these, Senator Maltese admitted the inflexibility of the current measure. He stated that this part of the project could be amended, and lawmakers could explore basing the number of cultural zones in a given area on population.

Some questioned the effectiveness of the project itself. Amongst these was Steve Zeitlin, Executive Director of City Lore (a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving New York City history). He felt that the zoning project's inclusivity was not wide enough, and that the state should not exclude certain locations, such as dance clubs, from being cultural institutions.

Another person who questioned the project's scope was Jonathan Slaff, Chairman for Downtown NYC! (a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding Lower Manhattan since 9/11). Mr. Slaff, while acknowledging that this project would be a terrific initiative in undeveloped artistic areas or lowly populated regions, questioned the effectiveness of this project in areas such as the West Village in Lower Manhattan. As a longtime resident of the area, Mr. Slaff viewed the 15% decline of theater seats in the area since 1997 to be the result of additional residential development there. Mr. Slaff sees artists as being forced out of some districts, and he feels there is nothing within the current zoning project to assist urban artists with problems such as these.

Theodore S. Berger, Director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, voiced concern for individual artists, and he felt that if the current legislation was to go forwards, gentrification would occur among those who live in the community. He also suggested that this legislation should go back to the planning process. Although this measure was originally dismissed because of time constraints, Mr. Berger felt that returning the legislation to the planning process would be justified given the wide array of problems currently present.

Others inquired about the application process needed to make an organization or artist part of a cultural zone. Ms. Weiner stated that these application processes would be "very vigorous," and that the organization would have to either preserve cultural heritage or show major cultural activity and organization. Ms. Weiner stated that the applications likely would be funneled through the borough council, city council or local assembly, and there would be plenty of opportunities to have input in the process through government officials.

The Alliance of New York State Arts Organizations is holding meetings such as these around New York State to raise awareness for this project and get ideas for the final draft of the bill. According to their website (http://www.nysalliance.org), it is possible that the final draft of the bill will emerge from the next legislative session, and the bill could possibly become law by next year.



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