Tag Archives: arts

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….


Music for World-Class Cities

When I was in City Hall back in the late 1970s, the goal was to make Indianapolis a “world class” city. That wasn’t just the rhetoric used by the Mayor and his administration–it was echoed by the City Committee (now long defunct) and by the Lilly Endowment, which facilitated the goal with generous grants.

The decision to make Indianapolis into an amateur sports capital wasn’t made because city leaders loved sports, although many surely did. It was based on a hard-headed analysis of where we might have a comparative advantage. The goal was city-building, and sports were a means to that end.

That was then, and now is now. There is no longer a City Committee, and the Endowment–while still generous and immensely important to Indianapolis– no longer partners with elected officials to improve Indianapolis as it did then. Our current Mayor is not a visionary (to put it kindly). Making matters worse, Indianapolis has lost many of the corporate headquarters and locally-owned banks from which we used to draw private-sector civic leadership.

Now, we are in danger of seeing the Indianapolis Symphony–a symphony befitting a world-class city, a symphony of which we have been justifiably proud–become a part-time (read “second-class”) enterprise.

The Symphony is facing significant financial problems.  It will obviously be important to determine the cause of those problems–poor portfolio management? Unfavorable labor contract? Other? I certainly haven’t a clue, and few outside the Board and musicians themselves are likely to have even a reasonable hypothesis.

But I do know one thing: in addition to being a beloved part of our city’s cultural scene and a point of pride, the symphony is important to our local economy.

Nationally, nonprofit arts organizations generate $135 billion in economic activity annually, supporting 4.1 million jobs and generating $22.3 billion in government revenue. Investment in the arts supports jobs, generates tax revenues, promotes tourism, and advances our increasingly creativity-based economy. The typical arts attendee spends $24.60 per person, per event, not including the cost of admission, on items such as meals, parking, and babysitters. Attendees who live outside the county in which the arts event takes place spend twice as much as their local counterparts.

A symphony season has far more impact on the local economy than football. Early in my academic career, I worked on a paper with an expert in the economic impact of sports. Such impact as exists is by virtue of intangibles–the value of raising the profile of the city with the team, that sort of thing. There was no direct dollar benefit. Despite that lack of immediate economic impact, we pump large amounts of public money into privately-owned sports teams and venues.

To the best of my knowledge, no public money flows to the symphony and a mere pittance is distributed among other arts organizations in the city. The arts have clearly not been a priority.

I am not suggesting that long-term public funding is the answer to the symphony’s current problems. Obviously, figuring out what happened, correcting missteps as possible, and developing a plan for future sustainability is critical, but that process takes time. If Indianapolis weren’t so starved for revenue, some sort of “bridge” loan or grant to keep the symphony going during that time would make a lot of sense, because keeping something important is easier and less costly than trying to rebuild it once it is gone.

Indianapolis used to understand that world-class cities require constant attention and inspired leadership. These days we don’t seem to have either.