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Alexandria Could Create Arts Districts

Richmond is set to give Alexandria new powers to cultivate art and culture.

Legislators in Richmond aren’t usually eager to give up some of their jealously guarded prerogatives over local government — authority that is invested in the commonwealth’s government by a unique balance of power known as the “Dillon Rule.” But Alexandria’s City Hall is set to receive new powers to develop art and culture under a plan that’s now making its way through the General Assembly. The legislation, carried by Del. Adam Ebbin (D-24) and Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30), began as a suggestion from Councilman Rob Krupicka, who asked that the bill be added to the city’s legislative agenda last year.

“People recognize Alexandria as a place where the arts has improved the community,” said Ebbin. “There’s good precedent for this, and it’s been granted in these others localities.”

Ebbin’s bill, HB 2267, would add Alexandria to the list of towns authorized to create the districts “for the purpose of increasing awareness and support for the arts and culture in the locality.” Other Virginia municipalities that already have the authority include Charlottesville, Falls Church, Harrisonburg, Petersburg, and Winchester and the Town of Chincoteague. Under the language of the bill, each locality “may provide incentives for the support and creation of arts and cultural venues in the district.” In addition, each locality “may also grant tax incentives and provide certain regulatory flexibility in an arts and cultural district.”

“It’s a proven economic tool and it improves the quality of life,” said Ebbin. “I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak, but I don’t anticipate any opposition to this on the Senate side.”

Ebbin’s bill sailed through the House committee governing counties, cities and towns with little discussion. It passed the House with a unanimous vote on Feb. 6, and it has now been referred to the Senate Committee on Local Government. It allows the city government to reduce permit fees, user fees and any type of gross-receipts tax. The regulatory flexibility provide for under the legislation would grant the City Council authority to set up special zoning for the districts, reform the permitting process within the new areas and create exemptions to selected ordinances.

“We’ve all heard the adage about struggling artists,” said Ebbin. “This bill will help out these people, who make significant contributions.”

COUNCILMAN KRUPICKA said he already had a number of potential areas in mind for carving out the new arts and cultural districts if the bill passes the General Assembly and is signed by the governor: sections of Old Town, parts of Del Ray, areas in Arlandria and perhaps segments of the west end. He said a good example of a business that might benefit from a newly created arts and cultural district would be a business like the Old Town Theater — a perpetually troubled business on King Street that is currently shuttered and begging patrons for money.

Krupicka said that if the measure passes the Senate and is signed into law by the governor, the Old Town Theater would have an exemption from the admissions tax — a tax of 50-cents per ticket that the City Council created in 2005 to take pressure off of property owners who traditionally bear the burden of most city-government expenses.

“One of the biggest problems at the Old Town Theater is that they have to raise a lot of capital to make infrastructure improvements,” said Krupicka. “So in addition to creating an exemption for the admissions tax, the arts district would also create a temporary property-tax exemption for infrastructure improvements.”

The exemption would allow arts-related business owners to increase the value of their property without worrying about the bigger tax bills — at least for the first few years. Krupicka said that he hopes these exemptions would create an environment in which arts-related business owners would have incentives to make improvements. Another goal of the legislation is to encourage geographic concentrations within specific neighborhoods. Krupicka said that a business like the Birchmere could benefit from the tax incentives while other arts-related business would have incentives to open near it.

“This is just as much an arts tool as it is an economic development tool,” said Krupicka. “The idea of having this kind of power is to encourage certain types of businesses to locate next to each other and create a sort of one-stop shopping.”

Betsy Anderson, a member of the city’s Commission for the Arts, said that she was eager to use the tools set forth in the legislation to help bring people to Alexandria.

“We want people to realize that Alexandria is a historic city, but it’s also a city for the arts,” said Anderson, who has held a studio at the Torpedo Factory since 1980. “I think this will help bring more people into the city, and that will help the merchants.”