The residents of Helena's Rodney Street area refuse to be defined by a statement of blight, and The Myrna Loy has launched a 12-month artist residency to get at the heart of one of the city's oldest, oft-misunderstood neighborhoods.
In late 2019, the Helena City Commission approved the incorporation of the Rodney Street addition, a nearly 8- by 3-block swath of the downtown neighborhood from Pine Street to Sixth Avenue and Warren Street to Rodney Street, into its urban renewal district.
The resolution approved stated the city's third-party consulting group determined "rehabilitation and/or redevelopment is necessary in the interest of public health, safety, morals (sic), or welfare of the residents," citing "substantial physical dilapidation," "defective street layout," "unsanitary or unsafe conditions," and "the existence of conditions that endanger life or property."
As part of its incorporation into the larger urban renewal district, property taxes collected by the city and deposited into its coffers was capped at 2018 rates. The difference of any increase in property taxes within the Rodney Street area will be reinvested into the neighborhood for projects as determined by public engagement and City Commission approval throughout the life of the urban renewal district.
Those dollars captured through the process known as tax increment financing are typically spent on projects to address urban blight.
That is where the Myrna Loy comes in.
"We're providing a different avenue for collecting stories and information about who is in the neighborhood and what they care about," said Myrna Loy Executive Director Krys Holmes. "A big part of this is how can we invite the voices of the people who aren't normally heard."
With the help of a $100,000 "creative placemaking grant" from the National Endowment for the Arts that The Myrna Loy will match, the neighborhood institution hired a design collective of three local artists and designers in addition to a visual storyteller in hopes of quantifying the desires of Rodney Street residents through various outreach efforts.
Local artists and designers Amanda Reese, Ashley Moon and Elena Johnson make up the collective. The trio distributed "Rodney Street is..." surveys to about 300 homes in the neighborhood last week. They also installed an interactive art exhibit in The Myrna Loy's lobby they hope will also elicit substantive feedback from residents about what they love with regard to their neighborhood and what they would like to see in the future.
In future years, the city's Community Development Department, with approval from the City Commission, will have to decide how best to reinvest the pool of money supplied by property tax increases back into the neighborhood.
Most likely that reinvestment will come in the form of infrastructure improvements such as sheltered bus stops, but Holmes hopes the results of the artist residency will help inform such decisions.
"Is there a way to structure those bus stops to fit into the feel of the neighborhood?" Holmes said. "We want to ensure any changes amplify the neighborhood's unique character."
Johnson, a member of the design collective and landscape architect by trade, said she lives adjacent to the Rodney Street neighborhood. She said she has grown to "cherish" the small section of Helena.
"It's a very authentic, working-class neighborhood I personally relate to," Johnson said.
Johnson said through surveys, focus groups and other engagement events, she and the other artists in residency will start to hone in on what the finished product will look like.
The fourth artist in residency, Helena Civic Television videographer Jeanie Warden, is compiling filmed interviews with Rodney Street residents and business owners.
"She's building up this library of stories and memories and photos," Holmes said. "That's why we're so excited to have this team of artists who have in their pocket all kinds of ways to reach these people."
Sharon Haugen, Helena's director of community development, confirmed the city has offered its support to The Myrna Loy's project and said it provides a unique look at the community that city staff might otherwise not see.
"It is a different approach to getting information from the neighborhood, so that's good," Haugen said. "It will help to inform TIF (tax increment financing) decisions."
The Myrna Loy's "Rodney Street is..." creative placemaking project will continue through 2021. Those interested in participating in the project can find more information on The Myrna Loy's website.