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Dayna Del Val, Published October 13 2013

Del Val: Arts might be answer for Moorhead

It’s no secret that Moorhead’s downtown has struggled for quite some time to step out from the impressive shadow of Fargo, particularly Broadway and the surrounding blocks.

I don’t pretend to know all the history, but when the urban renewal craze of the 1970s hit, Moorhead appears to have bought in, tearing down historic and beautiful buildings, similar to those that remain in downtown Fargo.

Moorhead community members suggested during a recent meeting that the city needs to find its “niche” in order to create a more vibrant downtown, according to an article published Oct. 2 in The Forum.

Might I suggest Moorhead looks to the arts.

What if the city had a gathering place for its new Americans or transformed a building like Coach’s into a living-work space for young artists emerging from the three local college arts programs?

What if Moorhead created rehearsal and performing venues for vocalists, instrumentalists, ensembles, actors and more?

What if artists were invited into unused or under-utilized buildings downtown to provide feedback on how they might be converted to viable space?

What if the city engaged its youth population in a downtown that drew them to shop, eat, create, gather and spend time?

All of this and more is creative place-making, a topic you’ve likely figured out by now is near and dear to my heart.

The article “Creative placemaking changes the narrative of cities,” by Sheena Lyonnais, reveals a neighborhood in Toronto that was dying until a group called Artscape moved in and created affordable studio and living space for artists in old and abandoned buildings.

“Artscape’s buildings are part of a larger movement known as creative placemaking: the use of arts- and culture-based projects to revitalize neighbourhoods and boost local economies,” Lyonnais wrote.

There are many examples of neighborhoods, abandoned downtowns and entire communities that have been transformed simply by inviting artists and arts organizations into their empty spaces.

And unlike other options, this one tends to be much more affordable because, for good or for bad, artists will often work in less-than-desirable locations, without state-of-the-art buildings or amenities, and transform them along the way into spaces that attract restaurants, coffee shops, merchants and most importantly, people who gather and purchase goods and property in the newly renovated spaces.

“You then see that multiplier effect start to happen … our projects having a role in the wider regeneration and revitalization of neighbourhoods. The economic impacts play out at multiple levels – from the individual artist, to the local community vitality and economic activity, to that wider impact on the transformation of our city,” said Artscape’s director Pru Robey.

This could be Moorhead’s future and legacy.

The community meeting that prompted the Forum article shows that this is not simply an idea singular to those inside the arts community. Several audience members asked for more green space and suggested a focus on the arts could make downtown shine.

I urge city leaders to invite artists to the table early in the conversation as Moorhead continues to seek out solutions. These problems are typical of all pre-transformed communities and neighborhoods and should not be a barrier to artistic development or success.

All transformation takes time and dollars, but providing authentic creative placemaking opportunities to artists and arts organizations will ensure a compelling niche for Moorhead that has a lasting and powerful impact.

This is the final installment in a four-part series on creative placemaking by Dayna Del Val, executive director of The Arts Partnership. For more information on the arts, go to http://theartspartnership.net.