My husband and I just spent a couple of days in Asheville, N.C. We’ve previously visited the city, and are periodically drawn back by its thriving arts community.
Because we are old city hall types, when we travel, we tend to look for indicators of social and civic health that might not interest other visitors: are there empty store-fronts in the central core? How’s public transportation? Are there people “out and about”? Is there a good mix of housing and retail activity in the downtown (Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street”), or is the urban core dominated by banks and law offices?
Asheville is a fascinating place for a number of reasons. According to my friend Google, it’s about a third the size of Indianapolis. It has the worst mess of Interstate highways I’ve ever seen slicing into neighborhoods and districts, but its small downtown was vibrant. What struck us was the nature of the shops, cafes and restaurants populating the urban center: virtually all of them were local. Unlike the many interchangeable places we visit, authentic mom-and-pop enterprises haven’t been crowded out by the predictable Gaps, Pottery Barns and Starbucks.
Mr. Google wasn’t as helpful when I tried to figure out why these local entrepreneurs were thriving in Asheville, despite their waning numbers in so many other locations. But I did find this nugget on a municipal website that might explain why support for the arts seems to have taken a central place in Asheville’s economic development strategy:
Statewide, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $1.2 billion in direct economic activity in North Carolina, supporting more than 43,600 full-time equivalent jobs and generating $119 million in revenue for local governments and the State of North Carolina.
“We all understand and appreciate the intrinsic values of the arts. This study shows that arts organizations are also businesses. They employ people locally, purchase goods and services from within the community, are members of the chamber of commerce and local convention and visitor bureau’s and are key participants in marketing their cities and regions,” said Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council.
“Because arts organizations are strongly rooted in their community the jobs they provide are, on the whole, local and cannot be shipped overseas,” Martin added.
It would be interesting to know which came first, the arts community or the strategy; it would also be interesting to know whether Asheville offers financing for small, local businesses; the preference of bankers for chains and large enterprises with significant assets and proven track records is often cited as a reason start-ups have such a hard time starting up.
With or without financing incentives, however, it was clear to us that Asheville’s decision to focus on the arts was a savvy one. The city hosts a variety of art festivals that draw lots of tourists, it is using art as a tool for redeveloping a dilapidated riverfront district, and a number of the galleries, cafes and shops in the downtown area were clearly geared toward “artsy” folks. That was true even of the local restaurants we tried–they were excellent, and as innovative as those in much larger, “foodie” cities.
Other observations, in no particular order: young people were everywhere–and overwhelmingly white. (Despite Asheville’s considerable merits, diversity appears to be lacking.) Most shops emphasized that goods were local, or if not, were “fair trade.” Being Green also seemed important. I saw more bookstores (independent!) in a few square blocks than I’ve seen in a long time (hope they last in this electronic age…). I’ve been stopped on the street by religious proselytizers in a number of cities, but in Asheville, the guy was a self-professed Buddhist monk, and that was a new experience.
All in all, a quirky, interesting place–not just another “mall-ified” stop on the highway.
There are some lessons there….