WICKED LOCAL – Having lived in Natick for more than six decades, John Moran doesn’t have many more firsts left to experience in town.
“I’ve lived in Natick for 65 years, but this is the first time I ate dinner in the middle of Washington Street,” Moran said Thursday as he dined on lobster sliders at one of several tables set up on the downtown Natick street.
Bard McKinley was riding his bike when he saw activity downtown and brought his 1-year-old daughter to Thursday’s ArtWalk.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said of the event, adding he would like to see more artists and cultural activities downtown.
Moran, McKinley and other visitors to ArtWalk dined outdoors on specials from local restaurants, listened to live music and viewed art by local artists at the annual event. Children played with hula hoops and made chalk drawings.
The annual ArtWalk, which for the first time was part of a restaurant week, is one of a variety of activities taking place in the Natick Center Cultural District. Natick Center, which achieved the state designation in 2012, is one of 25 cultural districts in the Bay State. The Massachusetts Cultural Council also in 2012 approved the Marlborough Downtown Village Cultural District. Franklin is seeking the designation in its downtown.
A cultural district, according to the council, is “a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity.”
Districts seek to attract artists and cultural organizations, encourage business and job development, boost tourism and preserve historic buildings, among other goals listed on the council’s website.
“We want to know whether or not the designation is helping to attract people and also whether or not businesses are opening up in our communities,” said Meri Jenkins, program manager for the state’s cultural districts initiative.
Although the initiative only started in 2011, results from 10 districts that have submitted data are promising. Those districts, which were required to submit a first-year report, saw 40 new businesses open and a 7-percent increase in visitors, Jenkins said.
She said it can take some time for communities that are not already tourist-focused to build momentum, but it’s worth the effort. And the council and other state agencies have programs and resources to help.
Leaders hope to get to the point where multiple districts in a region can market themselves to tourists and encourage visitors to make several stops in a region, she said.
Jenkins said officials are also working with lawmakers to try and secure funding for districts.
She said she has met with Franklin leaders, who are assessing assets in town such as the historical museum, library and arts groups and looking at ways to link them together to expand upon activities already happening.
“When a community comes together to have that conversation, good things come out of it,” Jenkins said.
Mary Scott of Marlborough Downtown Village said her group helped push for the designation hoping to bring more people to the city’s downtown.
Scott, an artist who also owns a downtown café, said the area has many nice historic buildings but they are “greatly underused.”
Downtown hosts an array of events including an annual Labor Day parade. In May, Scott’s organization hosted Chair with a Flair, where about 30 artists decorated chairs and auctioned them, raising money for other cultural programs.
“It’s an ongoing process, not something that happens overnight,” Tim Cummings, executive director of Marlborough Economic Development Corporation, said of progress with the district. “It’s a great designation we have. When resources and tools become available at the state level, hopefully we’ll be able to focus them on our downtown.”
Cummings said having the designation is an important part of economic development initiatives, which are increasingly focusing on the “creative economy,” especially along Main Street.
Paul Joseph, chairman of Natick’s Economic Development Committee, said the designation helps people think of Natick as a destination for more than just shopping along Rte. 9.
In addition to bringing more people to downtown businesses, the cultural district designation helps larger companies like MathWorks and Cognex market Natick as a vibrant community to prospective employees, Joseph said.
It helps Natick “become a place where people will want to come, have a house and truly live and work here,” he said.
Joseph said he hopes when people shop at the mall, they will also be enticed to visit the art stores, galleries and other shops downtown.
Steve Levinsky, chairman of the Natick Center Cultural District, said district leaders hope to foster an array of activities, including self-guided tours using an app, regularly scheduled events such as the farmers market and special events that happen once a year like Natick Artists Open Studios. Leaders are also exploring the development of a signature event that would involve the whole community.
“We don’t want this to be a passing fad,” Levinsky said. “We think this is what’s going to differentiate Natick Center from the mall and other places.”
Levinsky said the initiative is truly a public-private partnership with the town, nonprofit Natick Center Associates and other organizations working together on programming, funding and other elements of the district. He said leaders from different districts have met and shared ideas.
David Lavalley, executive director of The Center for Arts in Natick, said district leaders in their first year largely focused on securing funding. Now, they have completed a draft strategic plan, worked on events and are developing branding initiatives and a website.
Lavalley said leaders want to make Natick Center attractive to people who live within and outside of Natick.
“TCAN attracts probably 20,000 people a year to performances. A lot of those people eat at local restaurants when they’re here in Natick Center and do a little shopping and browsing,” Lavalley said, adding he would like to see more businesses be part of the district. “It turns Natick Center into a cultural destination.”
This article by Brian Benson originally appeared here.