Size matters: Walkability a factor in cultural district designation

On Aug. 18 the Brownsville City Commission approved a proposal to significantly expand the boundaries of the Mitte Cultural District, the aim being to help boost the city’s chances of winning a “cultural district” designation from the Texas Commission on the Arts.

The Austin-based Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, which in 1998 donated $3 million for the restoration of Dean Porter Park and creation of the district, is involved in the effort. Brownsville was Roy F. Mitte’s hometown, and the foundation in recent years has shown a renewed interest in Brownsville since Mitte’s grandson, the actor R.J. Mitte, became involved with the organization. R.J. Mitte, best known for his role in the hit series “Breaking Bad,” now serves as president of the foundation’s board of directors.

Roy De los Santos Jr., a foundation board member and immediate past chairman of the Mitte Cultural District board, said the practical advantage to TCA designation is “primarily exposure,” since TCA promotes districts around the state that carry the designation.

“So as tourists who are interested in arts and culture look at places to visit, that’s free advertising and publicity for us right there,” he said. “In addition, having that designation from the state of Texas would make us more attractive when it comes to applications for grant money, whether it’s from TCA or the National Endowment for the Arts, or even any private donors that fund the arts. That would be good not only for the district but also all the entities within the boundaries of the district.”

The district board tried and failed to win cultural-district designation in 2016. The following year, the Mitte Foundation became involved, and in 2019 its executive director, Coleith Molstad, met face to face with TCA Deputy Director Jim Bob McMillan. De los Santos said he was apprised of the key takeaways from that meeting, namely that in order to enhance Brownsville’s chances of winning cultural-district designation the district should expand its boundaries, establish economic self-sufficiency and increase its focus on arts and music programming.

De los Santos said he personally contacted TCA Deputy Director Jim Bob McMillan just to make sure the district was headed in the right direction in terms of next steps, including the expansion.

A view of Historic Market Square in downtown Brownsville, which is now part of the Mitte Cultural District after the Brownsville City Commission voted to approve a resolution to expand the boundaries of the Mitte Cultural District. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“That’s why I reached out to McMillan directly, because I wanted to make sure I had it confirmed, not that I was going on second-hand information,” De los Santos said. “He absolutely confirmed in writing that we were on the right track, and that was in an email specifying expanding to include downtown and going all the way to the Rio Grande, which is exactly what we did.”

In a July 24 email, De los Santos wrote to McMillan about efforts “underway to put in place all of the moving parts a cultural district should have.” De los Santos wrote that the district was using feedback from the independent evaluators who reviewed the initial, failed 2016 application, plus recommendations from Molstad following her meeting with McMillan.

De los Santos summed up those recommendations as “more comprehensive programming focused on Art, Music, and culture, being led by the Mitte Cultural District; making the district self-sufficient from a funding and operations perspective; expanding the district boundaries to include downtown Brownsville, going possibly as far as the Rio Grande river.”

“I just wanted to ensure I have these correct as we work toward our goals for a possible application to TCA in 2021 or 2022,” he wrote.

McMillan, who retired from TCA at the end of August, respondedon July 24 that “it sounds like you are on the right track from what you have shared in the email.” McMillan’s comment was included in De los Santos’ presentation to the city commission before the Aug. 18 vote on expanding the district’s boundaries.

However, recent comments by TCA Executive Gary Gibbs don’t appear to echo McMillan’s assurances. Gibbs confirmed to the Herald that he told City Commissioner Ben Neece, whose district includes most of the Mitte Cultural District, that the expansion approved by the city would result in a district likely too large to qualify for cultural-district designation, since walkability is a factor weighed by the evaluators.

A view of the historic Stillman House along Washington Street in downtown Brownsville, which is now part of the Mitte Cultural District after the Brownsville City Commission voted to approve a resolution to expand the boundaries of the Mitte Cultural District. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

In an Aug. 26 email to Gibbs, De los Santos requests a clarification of the comments to Neece about the size of the district. In response, Gibbs emailed De los Santos that “typically, a Cultural District is a specific geographic area with abundant arts and culture resources. Most often, the Cultural District is walkable. There should be broad community support regarding the boundaries and administration of the Cultural District.”

Gibbs also wrote that TCA staff don’t decide who gets the designation, but rather TCA commissionersafter receiving recommendations from the evaluators, and that “Brownsville should focus on arts infrastructure before moving forward with another Cultural District application.” De los Santos responded that “we have broad community consensus on the boundaries” and cited several letters of support from businesses, individuals and organizations in the area.

He added that Charro Days parade routes and holding the sprawling Crossroads Festival and Sombrero Festival during the same time are two points illustrating the walkability of the expanded district, and that the district “has no intention of submitting an application for designation without vibrant programming for arts, music and culture being in place first.”

A view of Elizabeth Street in downtown Brownsville, which is now part of the Mitte Cultural District after the Brownsville City Commission voted to approve a resolution to expand the boundaries of the Mitte Cultural District. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“When you think about the Charro Days parade, and these are elementary school kids, they walk from one end to the other, and actually their parade route is a little bit further than the district would be, because the district starts at Palm (Boulevard) and ends at International (Boulevard), and they start of course a couple of blocks before Palm,” De los Santos said. “If elementary school kids can walk it I don’t see any problem with adults being able to walk it.”