Bloomington Council Aims to Redefine Cultural Districts, Expanding Scope and Mission

 (Photo: Christian Prenzler)

(Photo: Christian Prenzler)

Bloomington’s Cultural District Commission has a new name and mission after aldermen Monday night unanimously voted to drop “District” from its name and broaden the group’s scope to include the entire City.

“The ‘cultural district’ may be a misnomer,” said Community Development Director Bob Mahrt. “What you’re looking at is the concept of a physical structure versus a community development approach to arts, culture and special events programming for the community.”

The commission’s scope has historically been limited to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and the adjacent Creativity Center. The City Council established the Downtown Arts Commission in 2000 as a citizen advisory committee overseeing the creation of an “anchor” for the City’s cultural amenities.

The name was changed to the Cultural District Commission in 2003, with the addition of a City Council member to the group in 2004.

Mahrt noted the David Davis Mansion, Miller Park Zoo, and Ewing Cultural Center as examples of the range of cultural assets located beyond Downtown.

The change also reduces the commission from 14 to 11 mayor-appointed members, but with just eight current members, three positions remain unfilled.

Alderman Jamie Mathy, the commission’s current City Council member, agreed “cultural district” is a misleading term.

“There is no legal district that’s ever been drawn that anyone can find legal documentation of,” he said. “We discovered that when we were trying to apply for some grants from the state and national level. Because there’s no district that’s ever been drawn, we didn’t qualify.”

Without limiting its purview to a single geographic district, the commission could take on a more supportive role.

“We can help fundraise and put focus and attention on the organizations that already exist as well,” said Mathy. “We felt like the artists and various cultural groups that already exist in Bloomington needed a champion to make sure that their voices were heard as well.”

Mahrt said the commission plans to develop criteria for establishing cultural districts in the community, with the possibility for multiple districts throughout the city. That would allow the commission to pursue state and federal grants “to do things in Bloomington that are different than what we’ve done in the past,” said Mathy.

An example of a potential district shown during the meeting extends from the BCPA and Creativity Center to include sites like The Castle Theatre, McLean County Museum of History, Grossinger Motors Arena and Bloomington Public Library.

Alderman Joni Painter worried the expanded scope may direct resources and focus away from efforts to revitalize the City’s Downtown core.

Mahrt said changes to the City’s zoning ordinance as part of Bloomington’s Comprehensive Plan would limit the type of businesses allowed within a defined area, encouraging the right kinds of development in the right places.

The commission will continue to receive staff support as opposed to line-item funding in its efforts.