Cultural districts are the heartbeat of a city. They are the distinctive part that makes your city unique and reveals the character and spirit of your town. They are vital to the sustainability and creativeness of a city, but so often these districts are forgotten and underutilized as a tool for economic growth and viable livability.

As Mayor of Paducah, Kentucky, a city of approximately 25,000, I have seen first-hand how the rejuvenation of a cultural district can have a significant impact on the economic stability and viable livability of an area. Our local government and concerned citizens have invested in, nurtured and supported the growth of our local arts district for many years and we are reaping great rewards from that investment. Paducah has used artist relocation programs, district rejuvenation projects, fiber art attractions, and cultural organization partnerships to create an arts district that is having an impact on both the local economy and the international playing field.

LowerTown, a once prominent area of Paducah, was no more than an area of decline and neglect by the early 1980’s.  But in 1982, the federal government recognized LowerTown for its historical significance by placing it on the National Register for Historic Places. This recognition spurred our citizens to restore and preserve the area. They believed that bringing artists to the area would create a cultural district that our community could be proud of and, thus, the Paducah Artist Relocation Program (ARP) was born.

Artists began to flood into LowerTown by the droves. Homes were restored, galleries were opened, festivals were held and LowerTown became a thriving area and desirable place to live again. As the program grew and the community took roots, LowerTown became a destination for tourists from Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, and Nashville. The diversity and creativeness of this area continues to attract artists and tourists annually to Paducah.

One of Paducah’s most unique and viable attractions is the National Quilt Museum, located in our historic downtown and adjacent to our LowerTown Arts District. The museum was created by Bill and Meredith Schroeder, local quilt enthusiasts, who dreamed of a place that would advance the art of quilting. It opened in 1991 with only 85 quilts on loan from the founders. Today, the Museum boasts a collection of 320 pieces of the finest quilt and fiber art exhibits in the world.  The Museum is now an economic powerhouse for our area receiving visitors from all 50 states and over 40 foreign countries annually.

Paducah also partners with other cultural organizations to create a diverse cultural district. Seven arts and culture organizations this past year had over 410,000 adults and youth benefiting from programming at the Carson Performing Arts Center, Maiden Alley Cinema, Market House Theatre, National Quilt Museum, Paducah Symphony Orchestra, River Discovery Center, and the Yeiser Art Center. Combined, these organizations spent over $6.8 million to produce their programming and directly supported over 181 full-time jobs in our community.  The addition of audience and attendee economic activity connected to the organizations added an additional $19.8 million, for a total impact of $26.7 million. This impact supported over $11.9 million in household income in our community and generated $684,138 in local government revenue for the City of Paducah, and $2.2 million in state government revenue.

All of these projects, programs, and organizations are beginning to create a name for Paducah not only nationally, but on a global scale. In 2013, Paducah was accepted into the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative Cities Network in the area of Craft and Folk Art. This designation makes Paducah one of only 69 cities worldwide to be recognized for its creative influence and capabilities. It affords Paducah the opportunity to connect with cities like Dublin, Tel-Aviv, and Suzhou, to name a few, in order to foster new opportunities for exchange and partnership, all the while creating a global platform to display Paducah’s creativity.

The opportunities that Paducah now has would not be possible if it were not for the dedication of concerned citizens, local municipal backing, and creative organizations dedicated to the revitalization and growth of our cultural districts. If there is one thing that I can leave you with, it is that cultural districts are vital to the viable livability and creative branding of a city. Cultural districts bring economic growth, tourism, and that special “je ne sais pas” that every city needs to become its own creative hub of diversity and vibrancy.

If you would like to see a cultural district take root in your community, be the catalyst for that vision. Organizations like Americans for the Arts can help educate and advocate for the building or rejuvenation of your own cultural district. Talk to your elected officials about restoration and artistic project in your area and involved in the creative projects of your community. Be the instigator of true change in your city.