Community members at Cary Library for Mass Cultural Council site visit
Community members working to establish a Cultural District in Lexington hosted Mass Cultural Council staff at Cary Library last Friday for a site visit. (Erin Sandler-Rathe / LexObserver)

Many of the people in the room last Friday didn’t know each other two years ago and most had never collaborated on projects before. Now, they’re all working together to make a proposed Cultural District a reality. Speaking in the Living Room of Cary Memorial Library — one of the assets identified in the catalog of existing cultural sites in Lexington — Carolyn Cole, the Mass Cultural Council Program Officer in charge of reviewing Lexington’s application, noted that collaboration is often a natural outgrowth of the application process.

The Dec. 2 site visit marked the latest step in the Town’s quest to establish a local Cultural District to spur economic, artistic and tourism growth. The Town has been pursuing this designation for two years, the benefits of which would include eligibility for earmarked grant funding.

Tourism Committee member Margaret Coppe and Lexington Council for the Arts Chair Steve Poltorzycki have shepherded the application through the process, incorporating feedback from as many as 70 stakeholders. During Friday’s MCC site visit, they provided an overview of the proposed district, which would run from the Battle Green down Mass. Ave to Wilson Farm. The district would incorporate nearly 50 assets, ranging from events like the East Lexington Fair and Chinese-American Association of Lexington’s Lunar New Year Festival to historical sites to groups and organizations like the Lexington Players and the Lexington Farmers Market.

Chair Jill Hai spoke on behalf of the Select Board, which supported the application, reminding attendees that Town Meeting has historically provided financial support for projects that preserve local cultural assets, such as the Cary Library renovation. She noted that the designation would “amplif[y] and validate [that] commitment.”

Town Manager Jim Malloy said his office supports these efforts because the designation will put Lexington “on the map with other [cultural districts]” around the Commonwealth; there are already more than 50 such designations around Massachusetts, with Bedford‘s being one of the most recently approved and opened.

State Rep. Michelle Ciccolo (D-15 Middlesex), who has long championed cultural activities and allocating money to them from the state level, said that the collaboration fostered by cultural districts helps build “rich and solid communities…so no one falls through the cracks.”

In addition to spurring collaboration, the Cultural District should provide incentive for visitors to spend more time in Lexington, as well as encourage residents to take advantage of the range of activities and destinations around Town. Cole stressed that one of MCC’s goals for Cultural Districts is to drive tourism that works for the community itself. This kind of tourism encourages tourists — both those who arrive on tour buses and those who travel 50 miles or less to get here — to look beyond the battle on April 19, 1775. This shift in focus from one moment in history to a fuller appreciation of Lexington’s history and what it has to offer today aligns with the Lex250 committee’s vision for the 2025 semiquincentennial celebration.

Cole and consultant Anita Lauricella, who is assisting MCC with the application review, gave an overview of the timeline for MCC’s decision. After Lauricella submits her report to MCC and the Town, with recommendations for how to leverage the application into a successful, active district, MCC will meet, likely in March 2023, to decide on Lexington’s application alongside four other communities that have applied. If the designation is awarded, the Management Partnership, which consists of key stakeholders, will be eligible for yearly grants from MCC. They can use that money to make grants to artists, support festivals and performances, and create new opportunities for culture across the district.

Matthew Siegel, representing LexArt, noted that the meeting last Friday sparked his desire to collaborate with SNAP in the future, a group he was unaware of until meeting Heidi O’Mara, their executive director, that morning. That opportunity for collaboration is exactly the kind of cultural growth the Management Partnership group hopes will come from this designation.

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