Groups team up to promote tourism

Published 10:32 am Friday, September 19, 2008

ISLE OF WIGHT—Two groups that have been experiencing a closer relationship during the past couple of years will solidify their ties early next year when they take up residence in a shared space in Smithfield.

Joining the Isle of Wight Arts League and Smithfield & Isle of Wight Convention and Visitors Bureau under one roof in the former Winn’s Hardware building in Smithfield will help encourage “cultural tourism” for both the town and the county, officials said Thursday.

Pending town approval, the two groups expect to leave their separate spaces in Main Street houses early next year.

It’s a change that officials from both organizations believe will be beneficial.

The new 4,000-square-foot facility will have room for eight artist’s studios, a classroom and a gift shop, along with public restrooms and a visitors’ center, according to Rick Bodson, vice president of the Art League’s board of directors.

The storefront, street-level location will make it easier for the League’s many elderly visitors to get a look at the work that resident artists are doing and to participate in classes, he said.

For the tourism bureau, the move should mean greater visibility, according to Don Robertson, an Isle of Wight County spokesman.

The visitors’ center’s current location in the renovated first floor of a historic Smithfield home makes it easy to overlook, he said, whereas the new building “looks like a business and has the looks of a commercial building.”

Officials are most excited, though, by the bonus benefits they expect to reap from sharing the new space.

“Cultural tourism is really hot right now,” Bodson said. “People who come to arts destinations have deeper pockets.”

The increased prominence given to the local arts community will help make Smithfield, especially, an arts destination, as well as an antiques destination, he added.

“We’re looking to really delight the visitors to Smithfield and the residents of Smithfield.”

Though sharing the new space will surely be the most obvious sign of a growing relationship, cooperation between the Arts League and the tourism bureau is not a new development.

“We’re formalizing something we’ve had in place informally for several years,” Bodson said, pointing to the Summer Concert Series and Smithfield Music’s Aiken & Friends Fest, which kicked off last year, as examples of the things the groups can accomplish when working together.

“The plan for the shared space is a natural extension of the existing arts/tourism partnership,” Isle of Wight Director of Tourism Judy Winslow said in a press release Tuesday announcing the partnership.

Since the tourism bureau is a joint venture between the town and the county, both must approve the partnership for it to be official. The county Board of Supervisors did so on Thursday. The town council is expected to do so within the next couple of weeks.

Bodson said that grants available through the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Virginia Tourism Authority could help the move turn out to be cost-neutral, despite the higher rent that tenants face in the facility, which will be built out to suit their needs.

Another benefit for the Arts League is that it will be able to sell the home it occupies and use the equity it has earned as a kind of endowment.

Crediting Smithfield Cultural Arts Director Sheila Gwaltney with birthing the idea and taking the initiative to bring it to fruition, he said, “The stars kind of lined up.”