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The Creative Economy in San Luis Obispo: It's All Around Town, and Focused Downtown

Photo: New Museum of Art and Southern Extension of Mission Plaza (proposed)

I was pleased to join dozens of leading local artists and arts advocates for the second annual “Creative Economy” Forum on Monday, October 26 at the Performing Arts Center, San Luis Obispo. This event is sponsored by Arts Obispo, a countywide organization that partners with the California Arts Council to promote the visual, performing, and literary arts in San Luis Obispo. The Creative Economy Forum provided a key networking opportunity for several representatives of arts organizations and advocates for the arts.

The “creative economy” is an amazingly large piece of the state’s economic output – far more than is commonly believed: According to an analysis by the Otis College of Art and Design, the arts provide about 10% of the State’s economy, estimated at $294 billion in direct, indirect and induced spending. One of every ten jobs in California depends on the arts, almost 1.5 million jobs statewide.

Recent State legislation (Assembly Bill 189) provides for the State Arts Council to designate “cultural districts,” which are defined as “a geographical area certified pursuant to [the bill] with a concentration of cultural facilities, creative enterprises, or arts venues.” Such districts are to be nominated by local communities, and will be certified by the Arts Council beginning in mid-2016. The Arts Council will be adopting a set of rules and an application process within a few months.

Keynote speaker for the Forum was the Director of the California Arts Council in Sacramento, Craig Watson. Mr. Watson explained that the idea of the AB 189 program is to bring “heat” to a defined, walkable neighborhood that “attracts artists, creative entrepreneurs, and cultural enterprises; encourages economic development and supports entrepreneurship in the creative community; encourages the preservation and reuse of historic buildings and other artistic and culturally significant structures; fosters local cultural development; provides a focal point for celebrating and strengthening the unique cultural identity of the community; and promotes opportunity without generating displacement or expanding inequality.”

At an afternoon workshop, I joined Mr. Watson and about 20 others in exploring the possibilities for a San Luis Obispo Cultural District. This City’s Mission Plaza – together with its proposed expansion through the Broad Street/Monterey Street intersection – represents a great opportunity for a potential Cultural District. This two-block area already contains several historic buildings as well as four sites specifically devoted to “artistic and culturally significant structures,” i.e. Old Mission and its Museum and Gift Shop; SLO Museum of Art (SLOMA, now proposed for expansion); the History Center of SLO County (also considering a possible expansion); and the Children’s Museum (recently expanded).

The City is working on designs for a new parking structure nearby with about 400 spaces, and part of the site on Monterey Street, across from the Children’s Museum, is reserved for a theater. SLO Little Theater is considering the possibility of relocating from their current site to this location.

A State-certified Cultural District would reinforce fundraising efforts of all the organizations planning new or expanded arts/cultural facilities in close proximity to Mission Plaza, which already serves as “a focal point for celebrating and strengthening the unique cultural identity of the community.”

Some workshop participants suggested that a designated Cultural District should also be extended north of Chorro Street to embrace the new Chinatown project, which will offer many new and renovated retail spaces as well as residential units in the upper floors. These spaces and units might be able to attract artists and/or galleries. In fact, the Blackstone Hotel at the northwest corner of Chorro and Monterey has just been leased by the developers (Copeland Properties) to Cal Poly for live-work spaces to be occupied by their “Hot House” students, who will bring a new burst of youthful creativity and innovative energy to the downtown.

Any Cultural District in downtown San Luis Obispo should attempt to include living space for working artists. Although few people reside within these downtown blocks at present, the City has been working with developers in this zone to provide additional housing in the downtown. A “Cultural District” must promote the availability of housing targeted to working artists, musicians, actors, writers, and others involved in the creative economy.

A Cultural District could also include two downtown movie theaters that have artistic/historic significance: Jim Dee’s Palm Theater, the only remaining “art house” theater in the City; and the Fremont Theater between Osos and Santa Rosa. Thus, a Cultural District might be envisioned to span an area as large as five blocks along Monterey Street and Mission Plaza.

The City of San Luis Obispo is already engaging many downtown stakeholders in our proposed update to the Downtown Concept Plan. Additionally, we’re engaged with several arts and cultural organizations in this area as we prepare plans for our Mission Plaza extension. These include Old Mission Church, SLOMA, History Center, Little Theater, and Children’s Museum). Many possibilities are available; all of them suggest that we should respond to and promote the State’s new initiative under AB 189 to designate a San Luis Obispo Cultural District.

John Ashbaugh is the Vice Mayor of the City of San Luis Obispo.
He can be reached at

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