Could Whidbey locales be certifiably creative?

New state program promoting economy, vitality through culture

Creative folk seem to take root quicker than gorse on Whidbey Island.

But is Whidbey worthy of — or even want to be — a state-endorsed Certified Creative District?

The state program is designed to provide a strong base to grow the business of arts and creativity, which is becoming an increasingly important sector of the overall economy.

Officials in Langley and Oak Harbor both say there’s interest in pursuing the designation, but the program’s benefits and requirements are still being reviewed.

“I know that there is a lot of talk and enthusiasm about obtaining the designation locally, and the city supports the effort,” said Langley Mayor Tim Callison. “But we will be hastening slowly and cautiously with regards to applying.”

Representatives from various arts and government agencies have formed a group organized by the Langley Arts Commission to study how the Village by the Sea could be deemed a Creative District. (The designation comes with a highway sign proudly stating the seal of creativeness.) A state official with the program is also visiting Langley later this month.

Only Edmonds has been designated a Certified Creative District since the state program began last year.

Oak Harbor City Administer Blaine Oborn said he and the city’s arts commission plan to introduce the idea at the April 24 city council workshop.

“The creative arts is an important part of the city’s economy and a Creative District with a director will promote this vital industry,” Oborn said, “similar to how the executive director of the Main Street Association works to promote the city’s downtown.”

The legislative initiative, passed in 2017, is overseen by the Washington State Arts Commission.

The state kicks in a $5,000 initial grant and it provides guidance once a community is selected.

“With a Creative District designation, a community can use it for economic development and as a tourism tool,” said Annette Roth, Creative Districts state program manager. “It’s a great way for people to come to a place and see and experience the many aspects of creativity.”

The program doesn’t emphasize just art but the broader definition of creativity, Roth said.

“All types of jobs are creative in nature,” she said. “Besides performing arts, there’s architects, specialty foods, software designers, even distilleries could be considered.”

A Certified Creative District is a geographically defined area where art, culture, creative industries and businesses that support them merge. The idea is for it to become a focal point for people to work, gather and enjoy a variety of activities.

About 10 states have programs supporting cultural and creative districts.

“Some are robust,” Roth said, “some are not.”

Several Washington communities, including Port Townsend, Olympia, Aberdeen and Pullman are actively pursuing the designation, Roth said.

She visited Langley in January for a meeting at the request of Kay Parsons of the Whidbey Council for the Arts.

About 30 people came from all over the island. Roth said it was discussed if the entire island could be deemed a huge creative district or if separate designations would be better.

Roth said she recommended smaller entities because different communities differ in goals and values.

She’s returning to Langley April 19 and 20 to meet with various groups, provide guidance about the application process, get a tour of a potential creative district and experience a touch of Langley culture.

Having recognition as a supporter of the arts and creative economy could matter when applying for future grants, said Verna Everitt, executive director of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts.

“It’s like a gold star,” she said.

One suggestion for a possible Langley Creative District is the South Whidbey Community Center and its surroundings, which includes WICA, Island Dance, Whidbey Children’s Theater, BlackBox Theatre and the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds and Event Center.

“We’re kind of an ugly stepchild over here in the corner,” Everitt said. “But with good lighting, signage and landscaping, we can create a ‘look up here’ and bring attention to an area that’s been rundown.”

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