Tempe should let free enterprise, not government meddling, create its arts district - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Tempe should let free enterprise, not government meddling, create its arts district

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Posted: Friday, November 3, 2006 6:00 am | Updated: 2:42 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It’s the first Friday of the month; do you know where your wannabe painter, sculptor, photographer, art critic or everyday arts patron is going to be tonight?

If you have one of these people in your life and need to locate them in a hurry, your best bet would be to head to downtown Phoenix, where over the past 12 years a grass-roots bid by a group of underground art galleries to throw open their doors for one late night per month has mushroomed into a phenomenon that now attracts up to 20,000 people. These arts-minded folks wander among a dozens-long string of galleries and cafes along several blocks of Roosevelt Street, and the monthly event now snakes up and down Grand Avenue, as well.

The success of First Friday grew out of a fusion between free expression and free enterprise, when a band of gallery owners acted on the idea they could succeed at something so many others had failed at — drawing people to downtown Phoenix — by keeping a few lower-end art galleries open late.

We don’t turn cartwheels any time a city goes beyond basic zoning and permitting to steer private enterprise to its chosen spot, but Tempe’s bid to create its own arts district seems especially ill-advised.

As reporter Garin Groff wrote in Tuesday’s Tribune, the Tempe City Council has taken a stab at some catherding by looking for a company to develop 12 acres on the west flank of the under-construction Tempe Center for the Arts into an arts-centered district with studios, galleries, restaurants and shops.

Most American neighborhoods that become home to clusters of galleries, studios, theaters, lofts and other haunts of the creative class germinate in usedup warehouse districts and other types of inner-city blocks. SoHo in lower Manhattan was the first of a string of urban wastelands which eventually became hip enough to force starter artists out to dicier parts of town, if there were any to choose from.

Tempe nonetheless sought ideas for how to make this happen through its conventional request-for-bids process, and the closest thing it could find to a firm with any applicable experience was The Lab, which was behind an old military goggles factory renovated into an “anti-mall” of the same name in Costa Mesa, Calif., with an Urban Outfitters and other, lesser-known boutique retailers.

Once city staff recommended this company’s plans over those of the other bidder, a Valley developer and arts patron recruited by three arts-related businesses the city had asked to participate in the process, those businesses were either unsure about or unwilling to work with The Lab, maintaining residents who had joined the public participation process wanted to keep the concept local.

After raising concerns about the amount of citizen input and other issues, the council did about the only thing it could do with the completely bollixed process and rejected all bids, though that of course left the bidders angry and questioning the wisdom of working with Tempe in the future.

Yet the City Council will consider restarting the process later this month, shooting again for a companion development for an arts center set to open next year. As Mesa has discovered, building such a center won’t spur an instant arts district. No one ingredient will automatically spur these uniquely organic hubs, let alone a shaky alliance between government, corporate and aesthetic interests.

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