Thursday, December 26, 2002

Small cities use arts to boost economies

Strategy to drive area development

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

DAYTON, Ohio - Three years ago a crater was left in the ground by the demolition of a vacant department store. Plugging that hole today is a $121 million performing-arts center set to open in March.

With a population of only 166,000, Dayton is the latest example of a medium-sized city drawing on residents' passion for the arts to try to inject new life into its downtown.

"Dayton has a great deal of pent-up demand for entertainment opportunities," said Mark Light, president of the Arts Center Foundation. "We've lived in the shadow of Cincinnati and Columbus long enough."

Other smaller cities around the nation are using the arts as an economic-development tool:

Mesa, Ariz., has begun building a $90 million arts center that is to open in 2005.

A movie theater in Phoenixville, Pa., prominently featured in the cult classic The Blob was restored in hopes it will help bolster a downtown renaissance already under way.

"The strategy of an arts complex to help drive economic development has been proven to be pretty successful," said Bill Conner, president of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, citing efforts in Cleveland and Columbus.

Good restaurants and specialty retail stores usually pop up near arts centers, he said. Studies have shown that patrons spend up to 2.8 times what they spend on a ticket on other things before and after a performance.

"If you have a $120 million arts complex that does $10 million a year in ticket sales, that's $25 million to $30 million in impact," Mr. Conner said.

Mr. Light said it appears the Schuster Center is on track to host 200 performances expected to draw 500,000 people in its first full year of operation, up from initial expectations of 150 performances.

The symphony, opera and ballet have enjoyed strong support in Dayton.

A 1997 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts showed that Ohioans attended jazz concerts, classical music concerts, opera, musicals and ballet shows at rates above the national average.

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, Americans spent $9.8 billion, or $35.60 per person, on admissions to performing arts events in 2000. That was $1.7 billion more than they spent on movies and $500 million more than they spent on spectator sports.

Despite the nation's sluggish economy, voters approved most of the $166 million in arts initiatives on November ballots. Those included a $25 million bond issue to renovate Denver's Quigg Newton Auditorium Theater and bond issues for arts projects in Nevada, Alaska, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Douglas Peterson, senior policy analyst for the National League of Cities, said the success of downtown arts centers depends on how well they focus on the tastes of the community and whether there are other centers nearby.

"There are no rules of thumb on the population of the city," he said.

Neil Cuthbert, director of the arts program for the McKnight Foundation, a private philanthropic group based in Minneapolis, said many smaller communities in Minnesota are turning old movie theaters into cultural centers.

"It's not a silver bullet," Mr. Cuthbert said. "But if it's part of a city's effort to revitalize itself, it's something that's been successful in that mix."

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