Art Revives Cities
Think for a moment about the most remarkable urban revitalization success stories around the state. Such dramatic transformations of decaying industrial sites and abandoned buildings into thriving, bustling places like the Avenue of the Arts in Grand Rapids, the Entertainment and Cultural Districts of downtown Detroit, the Box Factory in St. Joe, Old Town in Lansing and more recently the Armory Arts Project in Jackson.
What do they all have in common? Arts and culture were the catalysts.
This phenomenon is not new. Large metropolitan areas like New York City and others have for decades been able to point to countless examples of the culture/commerce connection. What is new, however, is that more of these efforts are happening not by default, but by design.
"Cultural economic development" is what happens when you engage the creative energy of a community’s artists, designers and cultural institutions in discussions, decisions, planning and implementation of a community’s efforts to breathe new life into its economy.
The result is a more interesting and appealing place to live, work, start or locate a new enterprise. Examples of intentional arts-focused development efforts include affordable artists live/work spaces, public art programs, creative industries innovation centers, river art walks, arts & entertainment districts, historic preservation districts, cultural tourism, arts incubators, performing arts centers and arts and cultural festivals.
Just five years ago, nearly every building in the 100 and 200 block of Division Avenue in Grand Rapids was either vacant or in serious disrepair. Because of an intentional strategy adopted by the housing-focused nonprofit Dwelling Place, today the Avenue of the Arts community is home to 66 creative residents, seven new businesses and next month two new restaurants. These restaurants alone will bring 80 – 100 jobs to the area.
By now, it’s common knowledge that the Michigan Opera Theatre’s pioneering restoration of the Detroit Opera House was the catalytic spark for what is now a re-energized downtown sports and entertainment district that bears no resemblance to the dreary abandoned unpeopled place it was just a decade or so ago.
Artists and gallery owners partnered with the Old Town Business & Art Development Association in Lansing to transform a blighted area adjacent to the Grand River into a cultural/commercial gem with 20,000 visitors attending the annual Blues Fest, another 20,000 attending its Jazz Fest. Lansing’s Old Town was recognized as an outstanding success story by Ikea's "Small Businesses, Big Dreams" contest beating out 50 other cities across the country.
Arts incubators are also being lauded as catalysts for revitalization with the most recent example of the Jackson Armory Arts Project which has transformed a 19th prison in Jackson into live/work space for dozens of artist entrepreneurs. The project has already served as the catalyst for new development in the surrounding area and is in the process of transforming the community’s decade’s long negative self-image.
And think about arts and cultural events that rock communities each year. Launched in 2000, Movement, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, had 630,000 attendees in just three years injecting $60 million into the economy in one weekend.
Then there's the upcoming ROTHBURY, the giant multi-day music festival with 70 bands playing over the 4th of July weekend at Double JJ Ranch just north of Muskegon, with attendance estimated at 50,000 and the economic impact to be "staggering" to the small lake town community.
Michigan’s nonprofit arts and cultural activities alone generate $2 billion a year, support 108,000 jobs and are the raw material for a $65.5 million cultural tourism industry.
If this region truly wants to grow a creative economy, more people need to see the connection between culture and commerce. The examples are all around us, but we need to shine a brighter light on them!