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Fremont City Council given presentation on implementing creative art district

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Students and volunteers come together to paint a 40-foot mural sponsored by the Midland University Black Student Union in November 2020.

The Fremont City Council was given a presentation on creative art districts and the process of creating one at a special meeting Tuesday.

“It is a new initiative that is designed to promote not only the arts and culture of your community, but it’s really about economic development,” Nebraska Arts Council Executive Director Suzanne Wise said.

The Creative District Program was created after its approval by the Nebraska Legislature. Through the program, up to $250,000 is given to Nebraska cities for the implementation of creative projects.

Councilmember Sally Ganem said she brought the concept to the attention of Mayor Joey Spellerberg after meeting with Wise at an event.

“I learned more through Sen. Mike Flood about it at a municipalities meeting, and Suzanne had offered to come and at least introduce this concept and tell us about it,” she said. “So I was very thankful that she did that.”

Wise said the Nebraska Arts Council had been charged with putting together the program. She also said the late Don Hinds and Tom Milliken of Fremont had been members of its board.

During her presentation, Wise cited a book from urbanist Richard Florida titled “The Rise of the Creative Class,” in which he observed that cities saw success due to creative programs.

“I’m not just talking when I say ‘creative’ about artists or musicians,” she said. “I’m talking about engineers, people that design things, people that build things, things that require creative thinking.”

Through these programs, Wise said creatives were able to bring more people to the community.

“That is really what made cities successful,” she said. “You can’t have a successful, thriving community unless you have this creative core.”

Wise said cities like Omaha are now able to bring large performances of shows like “Hamilton” and “Wicked” due to partnerships with Omaha Performing Arts and Orpheum Theater.

However, Wise said the districts were not just limited to urban areas, as the Nebraska Governors Association recently commissioned a study that found it impacted areas like Fremont as well.

“Arts and culture have long been part of urban rejuvenation,” the study read. “Now, an expanding body of research and practice showcases positive economic and quality-of-life outcomes associated with the rural creative sector.”

Other states also have creative districts, including Washington. Wise cited the case of Tenino, a city with a population of less than 2,000 that was known for its sandstone quarries from the late 19th to early 20th century.

“Well, what happened is they really ramped up the whole concept of the history of that town and the way they did stone-making,” she said. “Then, they have master stone-carvers and a historic walking tour.”

Through this, Wise said Tenino has attracted artists to its community and has become a tourist destination.

“They got there because they went through the process of getting this designation from Washington State Arts Commission,” she said. “So that’s how that all works.”

The Creative District Program would allow Fremont to attract artists and creative enterprises, encourage business and job development, establish the district as a tourist destination and promote its cultural and historic heritage.

“Everyone that is involved in the culture of your town can be part of a creative district or help create it,” Wise said.

To apply, Wise said the city needs to have a partnership with a minimum of three organizations, one of which needing to be an arts organization such as the Fremont Area Art Association and a city government representative for the planning process.

“The reason we want that is we don’t want people running amok thinking they want this, that and the other thing without somebody from the city knowing what’s going on,” she said.

The application process includes a letter of interest, which would include why Fremont would be a good candidate, as well as what the city would do with the initial amount of $10,000.

“Larger communities like Fremont potentially could think, ‘You know what? We’ve always wanted to do fill-in-the-blank,’” Wise said. “If that’s the case, you can use that $10,000 to pay for a consultant to come and run you through an extensive strategic planning process over what you would do in a five-year period, what you’d do in a 10-year period.”

After the letter is approved, Fremont would then have to fill out a booklet with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis and a plan to track property values.

“Knowing what the rents are in that area and tracking that over a five-year period of time to see if having creative community activities has helped up things, that’s why you have to fill out that kind of information,” Wise said.

Other plans have also included maps charting the best areas for art opportunities, with Wise stating that grain silos have been popular recently.

“I know Fremont’s a big sports town, and I would think that parks and recreation and your big Y, there may be ways that you could do enhanced bike trails, enhanced walking trails and maybe putting public art or artist-designed benches along those,” she said. “And that could be a partnership and that could be something you could tout.”

Once the booklet is submitted, Wise said an arts panel would review it, and if approved, provide Fremont with $10,000 in initial funding.

Currently, Wise said the Nebraska Arts Council had 25 active inquiries with 10 submitted letters of interest. While the funding is provided on a first-come, first-served basis, Wise said the council is allocated $1 million each year.

When asked by Councilmember Mark Jensen about the incorporation of the Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area, Wise said it was a possibility and suggested a trolley during the weekends or an amphitheater.

“I think you could make a case for that, but the point is you’d have to go through a process and everybody would have to put their heads together to figure out, ‘OK, how do we make this work?’” she said.

Wise also said the program is ongoing and that there are no specific time frames or deadlines for communities to take part.

“We recognize every town works at a different pace, and some of the people that have gotten their letters of interest in really fast have some holes in it and we’re having them kind of fix those and address those issues before we’ll take them to the next level,” she said.

Spellerberg thanked Wise for the presentation and said he believed Fremont needed to look at applying for a creative district.

“As we continue in the future of our downtown and the success of Fremont as a whole, this is a great option,” he said. “And who could say no to $250,000 if you do everything right?”

Artist-in-residence Karen Thurlow works with Fremont High School art students in Mara Hornig's class Wednesday morning.

Sculptor Benjamin Victor spent time with BSU students last week, showing them his gallery, working art studio, and explaining A bit of his process.


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