Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Arts & Entertainment Advisory Committee: A Year of Great Work!



County Executive Isiah Leggett
Executive Office Building
101 Monroe Street, 2nd Floor

Rockville, MD 20850

Dear Executive Leggett,

I am pleased to provide you with a summary of the 2011-2012 activities of the Silver Spring Arts & Entertainment District Advisory Committee, along with a series of suggestions that we believe will help to strengthen the district.

The committee’s monthly meetings this past year included presentations from a number of different arts organizations based in or near Silver Spring. A list of these groups is provided in Appendix A. The goal was to help familiarize committee members, a number of whom were new this year, with these organizations and their respective missions, as well as to speak with them about their concerns and seek ideas about how to improve the district. We also met with additional representatives of organizations that are involved in the issues that were raised (included in Appendix A).

In the course of these presentations, certain topics came up again and again in our discussions. They can be broadly categorized as follows: A clean and safe downtown Silver Spring; marketing and promotions; tax benefits of the A&E district; wayfinding; and space for artists and organizations. In no particular order of importance, the next sections summarize the concerns and the committee’s thoughts about how to best approach solutions.

Clean & Safe
This issue became a priority for the community and the committee again last fall, partly as a result of the debate of a proposed teen curfew law. Arts organizations expressed deep concern about the nature of the public debate, especially in the media, which included many comments that were felt to have recast Silver Spring as an unsafe place to visit. This, of course, is precisely the opposite of what we would like to convey; Silver Spring is a clean, safe place where everyone from families to young people are welcome and can find something fun to do.

The Fillmore Silver Spring has proven to be the successful street activator we all hoped it would be, and their close cooperation with county agencies has kept any potential problems to a minimum. We note, for example, several threads on close-by neighborhood email listservs commenting about the lack of problems many of them had feared, and their pleasure at having such a fine venue close by. This type of cooperation should continue as a model for the entire downtown.

For example, we note and support the efforts of the county police department to bring new ideas to bear on the downtown, especially reopening Ellsworth Drive at night and closing Veteran’s Plaza to discourage loitering. We are eager to see the results of a pilot program modeled after one developed by Target. We were pleased to hear that new officers had been hired and support the addition of more, especially bike patrols, assuming the budget allows it. And while we recognize the budget implications of surveillance cameras and the limitations they have, cameras should continue to be part of the conversation as we all strive to make downtown a better place.

However, there are other solutions that should be explored. For example, how can we encourage additional pedestrian traffic along those blocks of Georgia Avenue where many business close in the early evening, darkening parts of the street? We would like to see a continuous stretch of activity from Ellsworth Drive to the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center; perhaps this is an area that the Department of Economic Development would consider becoming involved in to help find solutions.

In addition, we believe there is an important role for the Urban District and the Red Shirts to play in keeping downtown clean and safe beyond their current duties. We supported the budget to hire additional Red Shirts this year and hope that takes place quickly. In addition to the services these individuals already provide, we think there’s value in asking them to be sure street lighting is adequate, burned-out bulbs are replaced quickly, and so forth to ensure people feel safe walking on all the streets in A&E District.

Finally, we note that some public facilities, including the civic building, are already showing signs of wear and tear that do not reflect well on the community to outside groups. We urge the county’s Department of General Services to develop a comprehensive maintenance and repair program, adequately funded by the county, to ensure our facilities remain something in which we can all take pride.

Marketing & Promotions
The ability to inform potential audiences about all the arts and entertainment options available in the A&E district is a concern to groups both large and small. Large groups want to draw from a regional audience. Small groups looking to attract an audience often don’t have the resources for advertising. This committee would like to see a marketing program designed to establish Silver Spring as a regional destination for arts and entertainment, which would help not just arts groups, but downtown hotels, restaurants and retailers, as well as increase county tax revenues.

In the absence of a marketing plan and budget for a big-picture campaign, we have turned to social media and other low-cost methods of promotion. For example, we created a Silver Spring Arts & Entertainment Facebook page where anyone who “likes” the page can post an event. Other groups have similar outlets, and organizations like the Montgomery County Arts & Humanities Council and the Regional Services Center have developed more comprehensive calendars distributed by email or available on the Web.

It is the committee’s intention to take advantage of local expertise and develop an educational program, designed for small organizations limited in both financial and human resources, to teach them how to better market themselves on a low or non-existent budget. We intend to make this part of the committee’s agenda for next year agenda.

Tax Benefits of the A&E District
As you know, the committee worked with the county’s Department of Economic Development on the application to the state asking for redesignation of the A&E District. In the course of our review, and in talking to artists and organizations, it was apparent that there are few who know what tax incentives the enabling legislation provides for, let alone how to take advantage of them.

An attempt to provide a tax education seminar (or seminars) for property owners and artists met with frustration last year, as we learned there was no one at the state level who was really “in charge” of this area, making it hard to find the right people to participate. Relatively recently, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development has named several individuals to be the experts on these issues. We intend to invite one or more of these officials to present next year to area property owners and artists, explain the incentives, who qualifies for them, how to claim the credits, etc. In order to take maximum advantage of their presence in Montgomery County, we will explore including participants from the Bethesda and Wheaton A&E districts.

The committee was briefed on the state’s Tourism Area Corridor project and heard a presentation from state’s consultant, Informing Design Inc. We support the plans to guide drivers to the parking areas in downtown, which seems a sensible way to get cars to the appropriate garages while minimizing their presence on Georgia and Colesville.

We have informally discussed pedestrian wayfinding signs to guide visitors to specific venues, and the committee agrees there is need to provide this valuable service. However, we recognize this is an expensive proposition to do correctly. We would support funding such a project, as long as it doesn’t take funds away from other, more critical areas such as clean and safe programs.

Space for Artists and Organizations
The A&E district clearly lacks adequate, affordable studio, office and gallery/performance space and that is a concern. In addition to dearth of knowledge about tax incentives noted above, some groups have simply been priced out of the Silver Spring rental market. Furthermore, the hurdles to renting space through the Community Use of Public Facilities, which are not limited to pricing alone, are an issue as well.

One solution is pop-up and temporary exhibit space. This summer, the committee will begin to compile an inventory of spaces that could be made available for artists and organizations to use for exhibits, etc. These spaces could range from empty storefronts to hanging works in building lobbies, on restaurant walls, etc. This information will be made available to local artists and organizations.

We are generally supportive of the idea, put forth primarily by some residents of East Silver Spring, to turn the Sligo Avenue police station into an arts center with studio space once the department vacates the building. However, in the absence of a concrete proposal for funding and property management, we lack the ability to examine the pros and cons of such a use of the building and land, so we tabled any further discussion.

In the meantime, the committee has briefly discussed how to encourage placing art that meets Park & Planning criteria in public spaces, especially under the optional method of development. This could be an agenda item in 2012-13. In addition, we had an initial meeting with a WMATA representative about art in the transit center. Right now, there is no money budgeted for art in the center, nor are any grant proposals or other fundraising efforts underway. Given that it’s unknown when the transit center will open, this has been tabled indefinitely.

Finally, we were pleased to be asked to draft criteria for the charitable and community use of the Fillmore, that so much of our draft was adopted and applications now are available. However, we have heard questions raised by individuals and organizations concerning the fees and how they were derived. In addition, the process is not managed by the Community Use of Public Facilities Office (where most people assume it would be), which makes it difficult to find the application on the county website. We would urge the county to look into ways to bring more transparency to this process.

Thank you for this opportunity to serve the arts and entertainment community in Silver Spring, and to share our activities and thoughts with you. We would be happy to meet with you at your convenience to discuss any part of this summary or any of the suggestions that we have made.


Michael E. Diegel
Chair, Silver Spring Arts & Entertainment District Advisory Committee


Arts organizations presenting to the committee in 2011-12 included:
·         Arts on the Block
·         Class Acts Arts, Inc.
·         Discovery Communications
·         Montgomery County Arts & Humanities Council
·         Montgomery County Cultural Arts Center
·         Pyramid Atlantic/Artspring w/local artist Kari Minnick
·         Round House Theatre (also representing Lumina and Forum theaters)
·         The Fillmore Silver Spring

Other groups presenting during 2011-2012:
·         3rd District, Montgomery County Police Department
·         East Silver Spring Civic Association
·         Informing Design, Inc.
·         Montgomery County Department of Recreation
·         Montgomery County Parks & Planning Department
·         Silver Spring Regional Advisory Board
·         Silver Spring Urban District
·         Silver Spring Urban District Advisory Committee
·         WMATA’s Art in Transit program

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