A creative movement is afoot. In towns and cities across America, forward-thinking artists and entrepreneurs are coming together to establish districts where their creative visions can grow and thrive. Communities are embracing the trend, fueled by a desire to support local businesses. Here in Tidewater, visionaries are connecting with city policymakers to create areas where local businesses—artists, designers, galleries, restaurants, jewelers, and others—can offer consumers an interactive experience: commerce with heart.
Synchronicity is playing a large part in these efforts. Just as great art comes about when myriad components converge at the right time and in the right way, creative zones like Virginia Beach’s ViBe and Norfolk’s NEON are evolving thanks to grassroots efforts. Local entrepreneurs began looking for a fresh, unique approach to doing business. They wanted to connect with other shopkeepers and restaurateurs, as well as reach new customers. Even more important, they hoped to establish a sense of community. In Virginia Beach and Norfolk, these creative districts are just beginning to bloom. Let’s look at how they got started and what lies ahead.
In 2012 Laura Wood Habr, co-owner of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro (with husband, Kal), and Andrew Fine, president of Runnymede Corporation and lifelong arts supporter, started talking about revitalizing the Central Beach neighborhood bounded by the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) to the north and 17th Street on the south. Seventeenth Street was once the bustling heart of the resort town, but the last several decades had not been kind, and vacant buildings dotted the blocks. The two decided that the area should become a Creative Industries District, designed as a place where residents could work, live, and inspire each other in a stimulating environment. They formed a nonprofit to guide the effort and started the conversation with stakeholders, city officials, and council members. The new district was taking form, but it lacked a name.
A couple of years after Laura and Andrew launched their efforts, Cindy Pennybacker had an idea to promote local businesses. Cindy, who owns I Love Chartreuse, a design store located at the corner of Baltic and 17th, called Charles Powell, co-owner of Found Objects and Details Interior Designs on 18th Street, to ask if he was interested in starting a “First Friday” event, a monthly open house to showcase their stores and local artwork. “There would only be two of us,” Charles said. “But the two of us can seem like a big party, and I said, ‘Sure.’”
Finding a catchy name for the new event proved elusive until Charles shared his frustration with a visiting Italian businessman, Ciro Monti, who suggested “ViBe,” using the first two initials of Virginia Beach. “I looked at him and said, ‘That’s it!’” said Charles. Cindy created the First Friday ViBe logo: a bulldog rockin’ shades and wearing a bow tie as a nod to Charles who’s known for his spectacles and neckwear.
Armed with a name and a logo, Cindy and Charles started marketing First Friday ViBe simply by extending their hours into the evening and letting existing clients know via email. “You take what you have, you use a vision, and just go out and do what you can,” said Charles. “It grew and grew.” Now more than 40 businesses comprise the ViBe Creative District that bounds the Virginia Beach Convention Center on the north, east, and south.
First Friday ViBe celebrated its first anniversary in April of this year, the same month that Virginia Beach City Council passed the ordinance establishing the ViBe Creative District. Laura gives Cindy and Charles full credit for jump-starting the new district. “It’s a grassroots effort that grows stronger with every event that attracts visitors and locals, with every artist that moves in, with every new creative business that opens its doors,” Laura said. “The city has played its role, but doesn’t want to stifle the energy and enthusiasm of a grassroots initiative.”
Emily Labows, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, is the program’s administrator. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of this grassroots effort to transform the Central Beach area into a cool, unique area that fosters creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit,” Emily said. “We want to grow what we have started by offering incentives to qualified new creative businesses.” Emily is anxious to talk to creative entrepreneurs about the district. Culinary arts, technology, film, marketing, interior design, and antique shops are businesses Emily would love to welcome to the district. She invites anyone who’s interested to visit the city’s website and contact her for more information.
First Friday ViBe now attracts people from across town. Venues like MOCA on 22nd Street and TowneBank Pavilion Center II are also taking part. For example, the Pavilion Center II lobby has a mini-MOCA exhibit, which changes each First Friday. Hardy’s Jewelers in the Pavilion II building showcases a jewelry artist for each event.
Everyone involved agrees that Laura has been instrumental in encouraging a sense of community to spread and grow in the Central Beach area. That goal was included in the mission statement for Old Beach Farmers Market, which Laura founded with her mother, Ann Wright, and architect Duff Kliewer in 2008. Their successful non-profit venture has been a catalyst for the new district. Several vendors at the Saturday morning market held in Croc’s 19th St. Bistro parking lot are now opening bricks and mortar locations nearby in the ViBe Creative District.
Old Beach Farmers Market has also stimulated companion markets. The Old Beach Art Market, headed by Betsy Hardy, owner of The Art of Jewelry, attracts a varying group of local artists. The Old Beach Green Market started by Christina Trapani, owner of Eco Maniac Company, promotes eco-friendly businesses. The city closes a section of 19th Street on Saturday mornings to accommodate the markets and the people who shop there.
Christina supports the new district. “Virginia Beach needs a location for small businesses to grow, a place for artists to be, and hopefully a place that will stay affordable.”
“Millennials have huge buying power,” Laura says. “They are opening businesses and renting apartments in places they enjoy being.” Laura hopes the ripple effects of the ViBe district will benefit other resort area neighborhoods and the entire city.
“We’re losing designers to bigger cities,” said Savannah Kaylor, president of the Hampton Roads chapter of the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA). “The better job we do getting the art district to grow, the more artists and designers we’ll have here,” she explained. Millennials aren’t settling for typical jobs, she noted. “The art district gives them a place to work and have connections, and it’s great to see the city support it,” she said.
Around the same time that Laura Habr and Andrew Fine were envisioning a creative district in Virginia Beach, Norfolk was considering designating a section of downtown as its arts district. They zeroed in on an area beside Brambleton Ave., bordered by Saint Paul’s Blvd. to the east, Chrysler Museum on the west, and Harrison Opera House on the north. Grassroots groups, Downtown Norfolk Council, the city of Norfolk, and individuals and organizations within the arts community began pushing to make it a reality, and in 2013 the city designated the area as an as-yet-unnamed arts district.
Also in 2013 Meredith and Arthur “Brother” Rutter were searching for a downtown property to house offices for their arts foundation. When the old Texaco building at the corners of Granby and Olney became available, they knew it was the perfect space.
Careyann Weinberg connected with the Rutters while working with Alchemy NFK, a community workspace, and serving as the interim executive director the arts district. She met Brother at an arts district meeting. “After the Rutters purchased the Texaco building, Brother reached out to me to get input on the direction for the building and the district,” Careyann said. “I fell in love with their vision for the arts in our area and, of course, Brother’s intense energy—it’s contagious and exactly what the district needed. They know the value behind supporting the arts and what that does for neighborhoods, cities, regions and further.”
“The Rutters hired me as a consultant to help pull the community together on what would be the perfect addition to the arts district,” Careyann explained. “We finally settled on a vision for the space that gave guests a place to view a wide range of contemporary art in a social setting. We’re really excited to see that vision come to life and see the space being used in a variety of ways by a diverse audience.”
Careyann and her Alchemy partner, Charles Rasputin, met with the Rutters for a few brainstorming sessions to discuss the space’s branding. They threw around many ideas, but Work | Release was the one that really resonated, and it stuck.
“It was a little different,” she said. “It took a risk, but was also smart and reflected what the space would ultimately be: a place for the community to see a release of art work, a place for people to meet and find a bit of release after a tough work week, a place where people work hard, play hard, and enjoy the artistic community around them.”
Now Careyann is the venue director at Work | Release, which has evolved into a multipurpose art, exhibition, and event space on the first floor of the former Texaco building. She also lives in one of the apartments on the second floor of the building. The third floor has a space for meetings and an artist suite, reserved for a traveling artist. It’s also home to the Rutter Family Art Foundation, which supports the arts, including exhibitions and educational events held at Work | Release.
Every weekend—Thursdays from 6 p.m.-midnight and Friday and Saturdays from 6 p.m.-2 a.m.—Work | Release opens it doors and welcomes visitors to view exhibitions. There’s also a bar and restaurant that pairs its menu with the space’s rotating exhibitions. Guests can enjoy dinner and a drink, hang out, listen to music, and explore the gallery, Careyann said.
Naming the arts district turned out to be a bit challenging, Careyann said. “We didn’t want to just call it the ‘Norfolk arts district,’ because we didn’t want to imply that we could be the only one in Norfolk,” she explained. The owners of Sway Creative Labs, a local advertising agency, led the arts district committee—comprised of business and property owners, residents, and others in the art community—through numerous sessions to brand the district with a name and logo that represented the area and the community’s vision. The committee finally settled on the NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) District. “This area should be light and full of new energy at all times,” said Careyann. “We want it to be a bright and vibrant space full of the energy of the people who are working hard to make our city great.”
Others who took part in establishing and branding the arts district include Jesse Scaccia, editor-in-chief of AltDaily, and Hannah Serrano, then-partner at AltDaily and now marketing and events director at O’Connor Brewing Company. “There wouldn’t be an arts district without Hannah,” said Jesse. “She was the most pivotal force behind it.”
Both Jesse and Hannah now serve as NEON board members. “It’s so gratifying to attend meetings now and know that our ideas are backed by the city,” said Hannah.
“I think we’ve come a really, really long way in helping to revitalize the area. In a little over two years, we’ve accomplished things that often take 10 years to happen,” Careyann noted. “People who believe in it have charged forward.” Careyann invites anyone who wants to help this initiative grow to get involved (see websites at end of the article).
In addition to the opening of the Glass Studio in the nearby Chrysler Museum, there’s been “a lot of positive changes to an area that was basically boarded up,” Careyann said. For example, the Hurrah Player’s new theatre, The Hugh R. Copeland Center, faces the Texaco building’s parking lot.
Other businesses that are opening up in the arts district include the Parlor on Granby, a café and event venue, Zeke’s Beans & Bowls, and Glass Wheel Studio, which is set to open sometime this fall. There’s also an outdoor park called The Plot and a growing number of public art pieces throughout the district.
According to Norfolk Mayor Paul D. Fraim, the arts district is thriving with 90 percent of the properties in the area now being leased, purchased, or developed. “Local artists and business people are opening vibrant restaurants, galleries, and entertainment venues that showcase a variety of talent unique to Norfolk,” Mayor Fraim said.
“Creating the district ties in cultural opportunities,” said Mary Miller, president of Downtown Norfolk Council. “Our goal is to get more of that art district feel while supporting business development.”
There’s been a “significant amount of private investment,” she noted. Owners are improving properties, for example. Mary said the council has been working on art projects, including three major murals to be painted this fall. Hopefully, they’ll be completed in time for the NEON Festival October 15-16, an event that will celebrate the arts district’s progress, Mary said. Norfolk also has a First Friday event, an outdoor concert series from April through October, held in different places around Norfolk.
Everyone agrees that creative zones like ViBe Creative District in Virginia Beach and NEON in Norfolk spur economic growth, attract tourism, and add to the quality of life of residents. Even more importantly, these districts breathe life into our region by inspiring a sense of community.
For more information about ViBe Creative District:
• Creative businesses who want to relocate or start up in ViBe Creative Arts District can reach Emily Labows at www.vbgov.com/government/departments/cultural-affairs/Pages/ViBe-Creative-District.aspx
• The ViBe nonprofit website shares its mission and goals as well as information for creative businesses wanting to relocate: www.ViBeCreativeDistrict.org
For more information about NEON:
Mary Ellen Miles is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia Beach.