Public art: An Economic Catalyst for Cities

December 13, 2019

“THERE WERE 900 PARKING SPACES within the downtown boundaries. That’s what made us realize that we don’t have a parking problem, we have a walking problem and a problem activating the parking that is not on the main street,” said Sadie Krawczyk, economic development director for the Monroe Downtown Development Authority.

First, the city identified businesses open from 9-5 that would allow public use of their parking lots after hours. Then, city leaders worked to make the walk to Broad Street more enjoyable. Starting with a city-owned alley next to the police depart­ment, Krawczyk said they hung string lighting and hired a local window artist to paint a colorful mu­ral. Funding came from a Georgia Council for the Arts Vibrant Communities Grant, which is avail­able for up to $5,000.

For the second mural off E. Washington Street, Krawczyk and Monroe Main Street Coordinator Leigh Ann Walker painted it themselves. The pia­no-key crosswalk was completed in an afternoon with the help of Hope Reece, director of the Mon­roe Art Guild, who joined Krawczyk painting after she saw the project in progress.
“You don’t have to be an artist. We asked the local sign shop to print some stencils. We splat­tered some paint on the wall, peeled it off, and we had a mural. It was that easy,” Krawczyk said. “If you get something simple enough that people can jump into together, you can have a very big impact.”
A new restaurant quickly moved into the build­ing adjacent to the police department alley and two other retail spaces have found a home next to the painted alleys.
“Part of their excitement for investing in that space was what we were doing behind it,” Kraw­czyk said. Since then, Monroe has installed more al­ley murals, a musical instrument alley, sculpture garden, seasonal painted windows, painted hy­drant art and even painted dumpsters.

Local businesses have contributed instru­ments, plants and planters, benches and their own time to the cause of sprucing up downtown. Pey­ton Pettus, a State Farm agent whose office is in a historic building on N. Broad Street, was one of those contributors.
“We have several outdoor events throughout the year including farm to table events, outdoor concerts, parades and festivals, which bring thou­sands of people to the downtown area,” Pettus said. “A little bit of sweat equity and care on behalf of the DDA, and you provide an upgraded expe­rience to those families as they walk in from their parking spaces.”

Creativity in Gainesville Drives Engagement
In Gainesville, local business owners initiated the transformation of one downtown parking area. Af­ter the Royal Theater closed in 1979, the property became a parking lot to serve office tenants in the renovated Dixie Hunt Hotel. Last year, the lot was transformed again, this time into a 24/7 outdoor art gallery with huge paintings, steel “trees” with colored glass bottles for “leaves,” grass and string lighting.
Frank Norton Jr. manages the Hunt Tower property and happens to be chairman of the Great­er Hall Chamber of Commerce’s Vision 2030 Pub­lic Art Committee. The committee holds an annual event in the Royal Space, as the parking lot is now known, to raise money for public art projects all over Hall County.
“Public art sharpens the visual landscape, en­riches culture and community connectivity with all demographic segments,” Norton said. “Art can also transform visually bland spaces in urban cores, creating event spaces and energy.
For a small investment, we helped create an event space for our tenants and a focal point,” Nor­ton said.
Notice what both stories from Monroe and Gainesville have in common? Community involvement.
Stephanie Aylworth, Downtown Development Manager for the Georgia Cities Foundation, said “placemaking” projects like these are an economic catalyst. Aylworth manages the Georgia Placemak­ing Collaborative, a program to help selected cities develop local partnerships to address economic and quality of life issues.
“Whenever you add those types of things into your recruitment strategy, you’re going to have a higher success rate” she said.
And it’s not just local businesses that are seek­ing a sense of place.
“Even large companies are looking for that,” Aylworth said. “It’s not just, ‘How are the school systems?’ It’s, ‘How is the community? Is there a place for me to hang out, or take my kids, or get a beer and meet other people?’ A lot of companies are valuing that. People want to feel like they be­long to the community.”
Community participation in the creation of these spaces is essential, she said, if public art is to be a true reflection of the city.
“Elected officials come and go. City staff comes and goes. But your residents stay there and own property there—it’s their tax dollars and their com­munity,” Aylworth said.

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