The Art of Economic Development

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….


  1. Great post. It’s what we are experiencing being a small business owner here in Ogunquit. 400 family businesses supporting 1,200 locals year round that swells to 50k people in season. Successfully keeping out any chains or formula restaurants. And the town continues to grow. Best to you Sheila!

  2. Indianapolis has always been big on tax abatements as incentive to lure – and maintain – businesses. Now Pence wants to end property taxes for businesses; hopefully prospective businesses looking at this city will recognize this would be a total failure. Use of property taxes provides daily services to every resident and business; if residents are designated to make up the tax shortfall they won’t be spending money in new businesses or those established. New businesses can provide additional jobs but there would still be the problem of residents having money to spend if they are paying all property taxes to provide vital services.

    I see what you mean about the significance of the arts; we used to have Irvington, Broad Ripple, Talbot Village, etc., as lures for those who appreciated their value. This has become a city lacking in amenities to promote appreciation for the arts in all it’s forms. We have also become known as a dangerous city for those attending the attractions we do provide. No form of art or music is worth endangering out lives to enjoy…exept for sports fans who can pick and choose.

  3. As a baby boomer I grew-up in an era and city – Chicago- where the vast majority of restaurants were “small business.” There were also locally owned Department Stores, Hardware Stores, Record Stores, Sporting Goods Stores among others. Sometimes the next generation took over the leadership and sometimes they did not. Sure we had Big Box stores.

    We do not have in Indianapolis a large lake or an ocean. We do have the White River and the Canal. These two resources have been horribly mistreated IMHO. The White River could be renamed the Central Indiana Sanitary and Industrial Waste channel. Downtown along the canal has been touted as scenic area. I find nothing scenic about concrete and cookie cutter buildings. “Development” in Indianapolis consists of concrete, and more concrete, and of course throw into the mix some crony-capitalism and we have sterile look.

  4. I think that downtown Indy has become very vibrant from the 70s and earlier. We used to called “nap” town. Mayor Hudnut had a great vision to fix the downtown. Yes, it took tax dollars. Fixing roads, buildings, housing, transportation cost money and the city needed to create incentives. There are many new restaurants that are popping up in the older buildings with young and aspiring chefs. IUPUI and the IU Medical School, IU Law School, Kelley are pushing more youth to the downtown. The round of growth will be to create incubator small start ups that are related to the medical school and Bio Crossroads projects. Lucas Stadium and the convention center is offering a long term flow of business to the local and national chains. One of these days, we will get a Target and Home Depot located in the downtown area which will be home run. Hopefully, we can get Lilly turned around to start inventing new drugs again and their endowment can start investing strictly in the local economy. Just think: If Lilly announced that they were going to underwrite arts programs at the local public and charter schools. Maybe, we can see major crime reduced if the new jail prevents further “catch and release” programs from the prosecutor and judges. Everyone one of the shooters has a “rap” sheet a mile long, plus the sealed juvi records!

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