By Warren P. Russo
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The city’s continuing drive for a larger share of the multi-billion-dollar tourist industry in Massachusetts made a leap forward last night as officials outlined their plans to seek state designation for a cultural district in the heart of Newburyport.
Cultural liaison Lois Honegger, who is also Mayor Donna Holaday’s executive aide, said the city has “everything the commonwealth is looking for to recognize a cultural district in Newburyport.”
“We have theaters, art galleries, shops, musicians, artists, performers and all manner of cultural activities and attractions,” Honegger said during a public hearing at City Hall. “There’s no reason why we cannot become the No. 1 cultural district in America.”
Generations of cultural tourists have spent $15 billion a year in Massachusetts, Honegger said. By identifying and receiving state approval for a cultural district, Newburyport would obtain more exposure on state-sponsored websites and other tourist promotions at no cost beyond some identifying signage to mark the area, she said.
The proposed cultural district — which must be a specific geographic area that is compact and walkable — would be centered in downtown Newburyport, bordered by Federal, High and Winter streets and continuing down to Water and Merrimac streets.
To qualify as a cultural district, the area must feature a concentration of cultural assets, activities and facilities, be easily identifiable to visitors and residents and be the city’s center of artistic and economic activity. There are already 14 such cultural districts in the commonwealth.
Holaday told the 35 people in attendance that a request is currently before the City Council to pass a resolution in support of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s efforts on behalf of the city to earn the designation.
“Newburyport is rich in artistic assets,” Holaday said, praising the initiative.
Honegger, the project lead for compiling all the information required for the city’s application to establish the district, said this is the first time the city, through Holaday, has partnered on such an effort.
Chamber President Ann Ormond highlighted a number of downstream benefits of establishing a well-defined cultural district, including enhancing property values, attracting more artists and increasing tourism.
Attractions located outside the boundaries of the district — such as Maudslay State Park and its resident Theater In The Open in Newburyport, Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury and others — can also share in the benefits, provided they hold regular events within the bounds of the district.
Newly elected state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, who was recently appointed as co-chairwoman of the Senate’s Cultural Arts Committee, offered her assistance in helping the process along.
“Tourism is where it’s at,” she said, noting the Massachusetts Cultural Council is focused on helping communities grow.
With the requirement for a public hearing completed last night and a resolution from the City Council already in the works, Ormond said all that remains is to complete the application and submit the district’s inventory of cultural assets. That work will take a couple of months, she said.
Completing the cultural inventory is expected to be the most time-consuming aspect of the application process. A comprehensive list of cultural and historic assets, special events, artists’ spaces, businesses, public infrastructure and area amenities must be compiled.
With no funding currently available for the project, the Chamber and city are looking for assistance from the community to speed the process. Volunteers are being recruited for committees dedicated to outreach and planning, marketing and economic development.
Officials are hoping more volunteers will come forward to work on the three committees. Interested parties can sign up to help at the Chamber of Commerce office at 38R Merrimac St. on the Newburyport waterfront.
“This is a time for us all to come together,” Ormond said.