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The Cape Cod Effect: Cultural Districts

Plein air painting at Aquinnah Light, Martha's Vineyard

Plein air painting at Aquinnah Light, Martha’s Vineyard

“The Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) has defined a cultural district as a specific geographical area that has a concentration of cultural facilities, activities and assets,” explains Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. “The Massachusetts Cultural Council defines it as a walkable, compact area that is easily identifiable to visitors and residents and serves as a center of cultural, artistic and economic activity. Only a municipality can apply for a cultural district designation.” Applying for a designation gives community members the opportunity to unite under a common purpose: telling the story of their town.

How does a cultural district receive its designation? An act of the Massachusetts state legislature in 2010 ensures support, including state incentives and resources, for cultural districts. These areas are expected to not only attract artists but also to encourage business growth, preserve and make use of historic architecture, enhance property values, establish tourist destinations and foster continued cultural development. As the Massachusetts Cultural Council puts it, “One of the distinct attributes of Massachusetts is the authenticity of its communities. From urban centers and fishing ports in the east, to rural hamlets and older industrial centers in the west, the Commonwealth incorporates a wide range of distinctive places. 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.”

Across the Cape and Islands, there are currently nine cultural districts, in areas including Barnstable, Sandwich, Orleans, Wellfleet, Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and a recent grant provided by the Massachusetts Cultural Council will ensure two more districts in Harwich Center and Harwich Port within the next year. Each cultural district’s designation is subject for renewal every five years.

Dexter Grist Mill in Sandwich

“We are honored to be chosen to be part of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Compact as the only town in the Commonwealth this year along with five cities,” says Cyndi Williams, executive director of the Harwich Chamber of Commerce. “These two new designations will welcome visitors, both domestic and international, which will elongate the economic season and allow us to showcase all that Harwich has to offer.” With the town still in the early stages of development, Williams is excited to see what each new day brings. “This collaboration with the Cultural Council, the town and the stakeholders is going to be an amazing journey,” she says.

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