When it comes to the future of downtown Middleborough, local and business leaders have had a united vision: a thriving town center packed with arts, history, shopping, food, and fun things to do.
Now town officials are taking steps to get there by asking the state to designate Middleborough Center as a cultural district, a label they believe would boost tourism, trigger economic revival, and, basically, put the state’s second-largest town on the map.
The assets are all there, said Jane Kudcey, director of the town’s Office of Economic and Community Development, who has petitioned the Massachusetts Cultural Council for grants and technical assistance to complete the application.
“Designating a district would highlight the positive aspects of downtown, establish it as a place to go, and give it its own identity,’’ Kudcey said. “We have a lot going on.”
In place since March, the Massachusetts Cultural Districts Initiative allows cities and towns to add the designation as a way to promote arts and cultural activities, stimulate new offerings, and attract creative businesses.
There are 19 established cultural districts and 45 others in the pipeline, said the state program’s manager, Meri Jenkins.
“We are brand new, so I think that’s pretty good going,’’ Jenkins said. “In Massachusetts, we are blessed with an extraordinary amount of cultural assets, which give people the framework to develop their identity.”
Communities that want the designation need cultural assets clustered in a compact, walkable area, Jenkins said. There must be a partnership with residents, businesses, and arts groups willing to put in the time and effort to develop the district, hold a series of public meetings, and gain approval from local officials.
“It’s a proactive, can-do agenda,’’ Jenkins said. “People really have to be stewards of their own vision.”
In Easton, the Shovel Town Cultural District has sponsored galas, exhibitions, and holiday events since its launch.
Middleborough Selectwoman Leilani Dalpe, who is also an opera singer, has been working to establish the town as a tourism destination.
Creating a cultural district would shine an additional spotlight on the community’s established attractions, she said, such as the Burt Wood School for the Performing Arts, the Alley Theater, the Rachel Park Dance Studio, the Massasoit Community College campus, the downtown historic district with centuries-old homes and buildings, and spaces in public places — from the Middleborough Public Library to the Town Hall ballroom — where events are regularly held.
Middleborough recently launched lantern-illuminated ghost tours downtown, and in the spring plans to debut a new multiple-day Herring Festival, Dalpe said.
The Robbins Museum of Archeology on Jackson Street is foremost in collections of Native American artifacts, she said, and the nearby Middleborough Historical Museum boasts varied collections, including memorabilia of General Tom Thumb.
Once Middleborough acquires the designation, Dalpe said, “we will be eligible to apply for funding for things like the Adams art program, cultural facilities grants, and help in organizing many activities throughout the year.’’
The community has been trying to reinvent itself for some time, said Judy Bigelow-Costa, president of Middleborough on the Move, a business advocacy group.
“Like many struggling towns throughout the country, it becomes necessary to think outside the box and find a way to draw people in,’’ she said.
It is an achieveable goal, Bigelow-Costa said. Imagine a movie theater with a fine restaurant in the center of town, she said, hearkening back to the days when stores stayed open late, unlike today “when the sidewalks roll up at 5 p.m,” and historic buildings renovated to house cultural activities.
It could be a place where students, the elderly, and others feel comfortable going downtown to see ballet, listen to music, catch a movie, have an ice cream, dine with wine, and then stroll along the sidewalks window-shopping and spending money, she said.
The overall transformation is possible with the state’s help, and a commitment by residents and others to shop and dine locally and seek out local entertainment, Bigelow-Costa said.
“In doing so, newer opportunities will come along to feed off the new designs and new population,” she said.
Once a district is in place, the community would work to attract artists and cultural enterprises, encourage new businesses and jobs, establish tourist destinations, and preserve and reuse historic buildings — all ways to enhance property values and foster local development, according to the state council’s website.
Middleborough business owner Lorna Brunelle said she would welcome the designation.
Brunelle opened the Burt Wood School of Performing Arts in 1995, and the Alley Theatre in 2010. Response was so good that the theater was booked for 30 weekends a year within a month of opening, she said, and the numbers have only gone up since then.
Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at email@example.com.