Frey pitches cultural districts to Economic and Community Development Commission

Ridgefield state Rep. John Frey (R-111) has introduced a bill that would allow the state to create cultural districts — walkable areas in cities and towns known for the arts and historical attractions.
“The idea is to have a walking cultural district,” said Frey at the Economic and Community Development Commission’s meeting Monday night. “We’re historically rich, and we’re arts rich. If you think about from the Cass Gilbert fountain and the Aldrich to … ACT, it makes sense.”
Frey said the state would use its existing advertising funds to promote the cultural districts in the state. He said the bill will likely be “revenue neutral,” meaning it will not create additional costs for taxpayers.
“Would it be similar, John, to the village district legislation that was passed a few years ago?” asked Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti, who was in the audience.
Frey said the cultural districts would be set up and managed by the state, not local zoning boards.
The state representative said he first heard of the idea from Ridgefielder Ellen Burns, who owns Books on the Common on Main Street. Burns was on a trip in Massachusetts, Frey said, when she came across an article about the town of Great Barrington trying to add a cultural district within its town lines.
“There’s about 40 in Massachusetts. And people really travel to all of them, they make it a mission,” Frey said.
“What’s the application like?” asked ECDC member Geoffrey Morris.
Frey said the details are still being worked out. His bill proposal is currently one sentence — “that the general statutes be amended to permit municipalities to establish cultural districts.”
In Maryland, a 2015 study conducted by the state on its cultural districts concluded that businesses and service industries within the state generated about $48.5 million, Frey said.
He said it’s unclear how much additional funds are generated in each municipality.
“It’s quite a bit of money,” Frey added.
Audience members asked if the state would have any restrictions for the districts, such as whether the town would have to ensure it has adequate parking, or enough lodging for visitors.
Frey said the only restriction will be that the districts have to be walkable.
The state representative said the idea has already received the backing of state Sen. Will Haskell (D-26).
A public hearing was held on the bill on Feb. 23. The General Assembly’s Planning and Development Committee, which oversees planning and zoning at the state level, as well as economic development programs, has advanced the bill to be drafted into legal language.
Frey suggested any interested parties in pushing the bill forward could email the members of the committee to help move it along.
At the earliest, the bill could become law by June, he said.
Frey said the bill has support from both Republicans and Democrats in Hartford.
“It’s not partisan,” he said, “it’s not rich versus poor, it’s not suburban versus urban, it kind of fits in for everybody.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated that the bill would not have time for a public hearing. A public hearing was held on Feb. 23, and the bill has been advanced to be drafted into legal language. This story has been updated.