By Beccy Tanner

When the 1951 flood swept through north Topeka, the business district never quite recovered.

As the decades went by, locals called the area "Noto," a derogatory term using the first two letters of North and Topeka for the crumbling and forgotten area. Buildings, constructed at the turn of the 20th century, were vacant; North Kansas Avenue was practically empty.

Then, five years ago, the artists moved in, creating studios, galleries and trendy antique shops and businesses from the vacant buildings where rent was affordable.

"In April 2010, the first artist moved in and now we have over 30 businesses, artists, studios and galleries," said Anita Wolgast, co-founder of the Noto Arts District.

Now property values have gone up.

In Wichita, a similar scenario has played out in four of the city's art districts: Old Town, Commerce Street, Delano and the Douglas Design district.

As the taxes go up, typically artists move out seeking cheaper properties, said John De'Angelo, director of the Wichita's Arts and Culture Department.

Some of Wichita and Topeka's city and art supporters want to change that and have proposed a bill that would create art districts throughout the state and allow local governments a chance to create tax incentives encouraging artists to stay and neighborhoods to grow.

D'Angelo is expected to testify Thursday to the Kansas House Committee of Federal and State Affairs about proposed bill HB2368.

"Currently, one of the tools that the (city) council doesn't have is the ability to assist artists in ways of property tax relief," D'Angelo said. "There is no internal process where a city can designate a cultural district.

"This would allow for that to occur as well as assist artists in staying in the places they have created that are unique."

The bill, D'Angelo said, was introduced by the City of Wichita.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, chairman of the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, said Tuesday he was glad to oversee the bill's hearing.

"I want to cooperate as much as possible with the city and county officials," Brunk said.

"I see this bill as giving permissive language. The city would be able to give tax credits or a reduction for no more than 10 years and only if all taxing entities agree."

If the bill is passed, D'Angelo said, it would allow local governments to decide the level of tax credits or abatement.

Other communities could possibility benefit from the art district taxation, D'Angelo said, citing Hutchinson, Salina, Yoder and Lindsborg as examples. Community artworks that artists such as Stan Herd creates using fields of crop art could also qualify as would the Symphony in the Flint Hills.

"Those are cultural districts unto themselves and yet they are not ever referenced that way," D'Angelo said. "But the types of unique art and cultural pieces you can purchase makes them part of a community.

"This would give every city that tool to decide how they want to apply the abatement to keep artists present. Cities can use this as a tool to keep neighborhoods vibrant and ways to draw people in."

Elizabeth Stevenson, director of the Fisch Haus in Wichita's Commerce Street Art District near Intrust Bank Arena, said that when artists invest their own money into creating vibrant art communities, they need incentives to stay.

"When gentrification happens, artists can lose their studios and homes" as taxes rise, Stevenson said. "The bill we are crafting would create an art-friendly environment."

Stevenson said that as the director of Fisch Haus, she and other artists have often put on free events for the community "using our own money and time."

"If property values go up, our programming will be effected. If property values continue to rise, we are going to have to chill out. We only have so much money. It definitely is a concern."

Topeka's Wolgast, who used to be the chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission until funding for the arts was cut, said Kansas artists need the tax incentive.

"We lost a lot of national funding," she said. "Artists are struggling.

"This bill would be able to support artists, businesses and galleries, keep them going and keep them vibrant."

(c)2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)