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City, county leaders, artists tour Atlanta arts districts

By Valerie Baldowski

vbaldowski@henryherald.com

Community leaders are considering establishing an arts district in Henry County.

Thursday, approximately a dozen city and county officials joined some members of the arts community for a tour of three arts districts in Atlanta. The tour was organized by Andy Davis, owner of Andy Davis Gallery and Studio in McDonough.

"I thought it was fabulously exciting," said Lynna Schmidt, Henry Arts Alliance president. "I think the potential for something like this in Henry County is huge, in conjunction with a cultural arts center."

The group met at the Henry County Administrative Building in McDonough, boarded a bus, and spent several hours visiting Studioplex, on Auburn Avenue, the King Plow Arts Center, on West Marietta Street, and Castleberry Hill, on Nelson Street.

They inspected art studios, galleries, and artists' lofts, and met with several artists who provided guided tours of their facilities. Two places the group visited included the Besharat Gallery at 175 Peters Street, and ZuCot Gallery, at 100 Centennial Olympic Park Drive.

Schmidt said a centrally located arts district in Henry would allow for "spiderwebs" of art-related projects.

"It could be a wonderful mainstay for the county economically, and creatively, it would be wonderful," she added. Schmidt expressed hope that the community at-large would support the concept. "I think everybody needs to get on board," she said.

Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis acknowledged that the idea could catch on.

"It would work probably on a different scale, but we certainly have been able to get some ideas we can take back and put into place in some city," said Mathis. "I think it would be phenomenal, when you look at the economic growth that occurred in, and around, the arts community. You can see that's something for the whole community."

The next step in the process of bringing an arts district to the county, said Mathis, will be for the county to assess potential sites in each of its four municipalities, to find a community best able to support the initiative.

Davis said he operated art galleries in the King Plow Arts Center, and in Studioplex, both located in Atlanta, for several years in the 1990s. He said the presence of artists in the community indirectly benefits the economy. "We're in an economic time right now where there's a lot of buildings sitting empty," he said.

Several years ago, continued Davis, local artists in Atlanta began moving into warehouses and vacant buildings to use the space. "What happened was, the property values started going up because of the artists that were there."

He said the county can benefit by mirroring what happened in the Atlanta arts districts . "The time is right, especially with all the empty buildings right now in Henry County," he said. "Business owners can start renting them out for the price of utilities, and let artists move into these buildings."

Other tenants will follow, he added, and ultimately, property values will rise.

Davis used the Castleberry Hill district as an example. "That was a blighted area," he said. "Artists and photographers started moving in and developing their own homes. Property values started going up. Then after [that], builders started coming in and building new buildings."

Nan McGarity, a McDonough resident, was one of those on the tour. She operates an art studio in Greensboro, Ga., and teaches art at the Winsor Gallery in McDonough.

"I was very impressed with everything, with the whole arts community coming together," she said. "They took depressed areas, and turned them into workable studios and galleries."

McGarity expressed enthusiasm at the impact the arts communities had on the Atlanta economy.

"I think any time you have art, people will come," she said. "People migrate to art. When you have a place for artists to go, they start coming out of the woodwork."

Once artists begin congregating in a certain area, she said, the door is opened to holding regular, organized, arts events in the community.