Group seeks to turn historically black Dunbar neighborhood in San Marcos into official cultural district

San Marcos City Council on Tuesday was asked to consider supporting a cultural, arts and innovation district in the historically black Dunbar neighborhood.

San Marcos City Council on Tuesday was asked to consider supporting a cultural, arts and innovation district in the historically black Dunbar neighborhood.

A local group is looking for San Marcos City Council's support in turning a historic area of the city into an official cultural district.

Led by Texas State University assistant professor Shetay Ashford, who also runs The P2P Movement, a nonprofit and workforce development corporation aimed at improving the economic prosperity of global underserved communities, the group is looking to get an official state cultural district designation for the historically black Dunbar neighborhood.

The proposed neighborhood would consist of the Calaboose African American History Museum, Eddie Durham Jazz Park, Cephas House, Dunbar School, the historic First Baptist Church and several historically black churches.

The Dunbar neighborhood is already a city-designated historic district, along with downtown, Hopkins Street, Belvin Street, Burleson and Lindsey-Rogers.

In a letter of intent to the Texas Commission on the Arts in January, advocates said an official state designation would revitalize the community while "spurring much-needed growth."

"The historic African-American Dunbar community, once marked as a 'thriving community', has been shattered by segregation, outmigration, business closures, demolished buildings and gentrification. For over a century, this community has faced numerous barriers to preserving its own history, arts and culture, and overall economic prosperity," the letter stated.

According to Ashford, the boundaries will roughly include the MLK Drive/LBJ Drive intersection, Mitchell Street, Centre Street, North Endicott Street and Dunbar Park.

If San Marcos City Council approves a resolution or offers a letter of support, Ashford may then apply for the Texas Commission on the Arts cultural district designation. The application is due June 15.

The application requirements include submitting a plan for the district that focuses on how it will attract visitors, submitting a budget outline and detailing the boundaries of the district.

The Texas Commission on the Arts will then convene an evaluation panel made up of tourism and community arts development professionals in August to review applications, according to Jim Bob McMillan, deputy director at the Texas Commission on the Arts. The applications will be scored and the nine-person, governor-appointed commission will make a final decision on designations in September.

McMillan previously told Community Impact Newspaper in 2017, the commission received 11 applications and designated one district.

The Texas Commission on the Arts began designating cultural districts in the state in 2005 thanks to the passage of House Bill 2208. Since then, 36 areas have become designated cultural districts, including Bastrop, Wimberley, Georgetown and Austin.

During a presentation to the council on Tuesday, McMillan pointed to Six Square—a state-designated historically black cultural district on the east side of town aimed at reanimating cultural spaces, connecting community, and honoring the past, present, and future of Austin’s black cultural district—as a model for what the Dunbar cultural district could be.

San Marcos City Council will vote May 15 during its regular meeting on whether to approve a resolution or sign a letter of support.

If the Texas Commission on the Arts designation is awarded, the city is under no obligation to provide funds, and the designation does not create any additional regulations for property owners within the district.

During the work session Tuesday, all council members were in agreement to support the initiative. Council Member Lisa Prewitt proposed creating a council subcommittee to help support Ashford's efforts to become a cultural district.

City Manager Bert Lumbreras said the city's arts commission was also in talks to apply for a state cultural district designation. Joe Ptak, a member of the arts commission, said the plan has evolved over time to include three proposed cultural districts under one umbrella. He said the arts commission is fleshing out its proposal.

Separate from cultural district efforts, several advocates are looking to restore the First Baptist Church, located at 219 W. MLK Drive, and turn it into a Dunbar Cultural Heritage Center. Spearheaded by the Calaboose museum, the initiative is in its funding phase, according to Ashford.

This story has been updated to reflect the P2P Movement does not intend to pass on the management of the district to the Calaboose museum.


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