Lenox to seek formal state designation as cultural district

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LENOX — Four communities in Berkshire County already have earned the Massachusetts Cultural Council's coveted seal of approval as an official cultural district.

Now, Lenox is mounting a team effort among Town Hall leaders, the Chamber of Commerce and local Cultural Council representatives to earn the designation.

It would provide a gateway to promote and boost year-round tourism and gain access to economic development grants, including the sought-after state Cultural Facilities Fund.

A public information session will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in Town Hall to describe the steps needed to pass muster with the state council, according to Land Use Director and Town Planner Gwen Miller. Invitations also have been sent to representatives of area cultural establishments and businesses, she said.

At the meeting, people attending will learn how a cultural district designation would help the town by benefiting residents, visitors and businesses, Miller said.

Pittsfield's Upstreet Cultural District, Williamstown, North Adams and downtown Great Barrington already have earned the district award.

Feedback from the informational meeting and through an online survey will set the stage for a review by the Select Board, which would be asked to formally approve a resolution supporting the town's application to the Mass Cultural Council. The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is assisting the effort through its Shared Economic Planner Program.

The statewide council considers applications by scoping out the proposed local district's location and how many cultural and historic opportunities are offered within the area.

"They look at how the district will be organized and managed," said Miller, "and how will it measure its success."

Miller told The Eagle she is hoping for Select Board approval in October or November. The Mass Cultural Council could conduct a site visit to the town soon thereafter, ideally during the early December "Making Spirits Bright" holiday festival in downtown Lenox, she said.

"Part of the goal of becoming a cultural district is to further promote Lenox as a year-round destination and to show that there are things happening, even in December," Miller said.

Shaping the contours of the proposed cultural district has been somewhat challenging, she said, since not all of the town's many attractions are within easy walking distance. However, the Ventfort Hall Gilded Age Museum and Shakespeare & Company are within a 5- to 10-minute stroll from Town Hall.

But other cultural hotspots such as The Mount, Tanglewood, the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute would be designated as "partners" for the cultural district.

"The goal is to help push people from the village to those sites, and to get people at those sites to come into the village," Miller said. "No matter how the district is shaped, Lenox is a cultural community and this designation would help further that."

The map of the district is likely to be similar to the downtown village's already established Historic District.

The state Cultural Council requires that local districts must be walkable, well-defined areas centered on existing attractions, Miller pointed out, though she noted that if the designation is awarded to Lenox, the benefits would extend beyond the downtown area to nearby neighborhoods and communities.

"This designation is a great opportunity," Lenox Chamber of Commerce Director Shaun Kelleher said. "We're eager to pursue something that not only recognizes and promotes the great work of our world-renowned cultural institutions but also will have a positive impact on retailers, restaurants and galleries throughout Lenox."

If the town succeeds in its effort, two new signs identifying the cultural district would be installed around the north and south entrances to the village center. Miller expressed the hope that if the town's application is approved in Boston, the designation would be awarded next spring.

The Mass Cultural Council's local district initiative was authorized by state lawmakers in 2010 and was launched the following year.

So far, 45 cultural districts with thriving arts, humanities and science attractions have been designated from Amherst to Wellfleet, also including Barnstable, Easton, Orleans, Sandwich and Provincetown on Cape Cod, Nantucket island, Northampton, downtown Springfield, Vineyard Haven and a half dozen areas in Boston and Cambridge.

"These cultural districts help local arts, humanities, and science organizations improve the quality and range of their public programs so that more local families can benefit from them," according to the Mass Cultural Council's website. "They enhance the experience for visitors and thus attract more tourist dollars and tax revenue. And they attract artists, cultural organizations and entrepreneurs of all kinds — enhancing property values and making communities more attractive."

At Wednesday's informational session, the town's application will be "crowd-sourced," Miller said, so people can express their goals, vision and needs. Improved signage and way-finding already have been identified as methods to help visitors in town locate nearby cultural destinations.

Another priority is to make sure "everyone's on the same page" when major events are planned in order to avoid schedule conflicts, she added. Attracting more performers and art into public spaces in the village center is another goal, especially during the summer in Lilac Park and the Roche Reading Park adjacent to the town library.

"The Cultural District Initiative encourages Massachusetts communities to strengthen this sense of place while stimulating economic activity, improving the experiences of visitors to our communities and creating a higher quality of life," the state Cultural Council noted.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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