For Laura Burkhardt, revamping Avenue of the Arts feels personal

B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia

“That stretch of Broad Street, it’s the jewel of the city…Or it should be. It needs polishing.”

That “stretch” is the area of Washington Avenue to City Hall from 13th to 15th streets, better known as The Avenue of the Arts. After the pandemic hit and shut down the heartbeat of the district with the voiding of live shows, a bit of polishing could go a long way for the district. That’s where new Executive Director Laura Burkhardt comes in.

Burkhardt has called the City of Brotherly Love home for almost two decades, and during that time, she has worked all around Philly after transferring from Baltimore with her long-time employer Where Magazine. Her resume includes Visit Philadelphia, working with the Independence Visitor’s Center and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society on their magazine. Her newest role however, includes succeeding Paul Beideman who acted as CEO and President of the Avenue of the Arts for many years as ED.

Laura Burkhardt. Society Hill Films

“I realized it was a position I could do, [and] not only could, but I wanted to do it. I wanted to be part of the rebirth for the Avenue of the Arts,” she explains. Burkhardt also notes that it was the process of the interview for the position itself that really solidified that notion. “The questions made me remember and think about what that stretch of land has meant to my experience in Philadelphia. From the Bellevue hotel and having a birthday in the Presidential Suite, to my first Mummer’s Parade, to Ballet-X and some of the amazing events at the Kimmel Center.”

It makes you stop and wonder… there’s a social media trend that talks about people being the main characters in their own story and maybe not thinking about the full lives led by others, which is normal. But walking down the historic Philadelphia street while looking up and down at the many buildings that line it, you have to wonder how many milestones have been held there for people and how many memories that they will hold onto forever.

“After thinking about the stretch of what the boundaries of the Avenue of the Arts are, I was really intrigued with expanding and showing the diversity of the area. I found that interesting,” continues Burkhardt. “My job is to advocate for the restaurants and businesses in that space. To really make sure that it’s a beautiful, welcoming space for visitors and for residents, that it’s safe and that I can speak on behalf of the residents and the businesses to any issues that might come up along the way.”

Part of that job is thinking in terms of what’s important to those who utilize the area every day—the residents. Over the course of the past 20 years, the number of those who call the Avenue of the Arts home has grown exponentially and in the Friends of the Avenue of the Arts group alone, there are about 2,500 members.

“There are people who are really active and really committed to the mission and I felt like I wanted to be part of that,” notes Burkhardt on the board and the supporters. Even though the new Executive Director is essentially a one-woman show—with a part-time administrative employee as well—the first part of the job in her new role is to get out and find out what it is that people really want. “I’m going to be walking the Avenue meeting the people. That’s a big part of the job for me. I like to think I’m going to bring some street cred to the organization, for lack of a better term. There needs to be someone who’s visible on the Avenue every day and one that people know. I don’t want to make any judgments about what people want, I need to talk to them myself and figure out what they need.”

What is also on the top of Burkhardt’s list is to help revive the area after such a long pause. Part of that involves taking money they received from the state in the form of a grant and using that to build a stronger website for the stakeholders so it becomes an information hub on performing arts in that neighborhood. Another part is planning for the huge resurgence that will take place on the Avenue come September.

Without live shows, the entirety of the district has suffered. Shows drive not just ticket sales but also foot traffic. A 2019 study done by Econsult Solutions, Inc. found each dollar spent on a ticket generates $12 in economic activity for area businesses such as restaurants, retailers, and hoteliers. In their study, that’s just for the Kimmel Center alone. Building a plan to safely reopen the Kimmel by itself would help the region’s economy by restoring 2,380 jobs, and $5.3-million in monthly household income, so just imagine how impactful this will all be when every organization can do the same in the area.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for use to remind people that this is the place to come. That’s really my first mission…To work towards a grand reopening of the Avenue of the Arts in September,” says Burkhardt. “I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to work with every level of stakeholder on the Ave to promote, beautify and remind people that this is the opening door to Philadelphia.”

Right now, the Avenue of the Arts does have many exciting openings (such as the Element and the soon-to-come ArtHaus.) But it’s the nostalgic aspect—the part that evokes the memories that Burkhardt wants to tap into. To expand on that feel for the city would only ensure that the future holds many memories for current Philadelphians.

“We as a city need the Avenue of the Arts to be vibrant. That centerpiece that will drive traffic in and around not just Philadelphia, but the region. I think there’s an opportunity for that kind of place-making, in fact, I think that’s really exciting. Personally, I feel like this is my opportunity to give and advocate for this city I love so much. I’ve lived all over the country in 17 different cities, and this city is my home. It’s where I bought a house, it’s where I have formed my friend family and anything I can do to advocate and to stand for that, I’m proud to do.”

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