The Arts and Community & Economic Development

Here’s the pre-requisite for this blog post… Please read Evan Brandt’s excellent article about Bethlehems’s highly successful, long-running Musikfest, run by the not-for-profit ArtsQuest. I was among the group that visited, hoping to glean some insights that might benefit Pottstown.

First, the basic assumption – and it has been shown in numerous studies – is that arts and cultural development provides economic benefits, sometimes in a very big way.

Second, the following discussion assumes that Pottstown wants to consider an economic development strategy that involves the arts and culture. From what I can tell, there is a core group of folks who would like to see this happen, but I’m not sure there’s consensus.

Third, each community is different and, therefore, each community needs to come up with its own “authentic” strategy. Musikfest works in Bethlehem because of their Moravian heritage. In 1993 ArtsQuest also instituted a successful annual Christkindlmarkt, modeled on the outdoor Christmas markets in German villages and towns. As Amy Francis said in The Mercury, “We can’t recreate what you’ve done here… We need to figure out what we are.”

I confess: I had a head-start because I took a class in Cultural, Community & Economic Development last year as part of a continuing education requirement. In that class we looked at the case studies in Tom Borrup’s The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook: How to Transform Communities Using Local Assets, Arts, and Culture. Musikfest would be a fine addition to Borrup’s book, although I’m anxiously awaiting the book that Jeffrey Parks said he hopes to write some day soon about his experiences in Bethlehem. 🙂

Below is an overview of Borrup’s book to help put Bethlehem’s success and Pottstown’s challenges in context.

Borrup categorizes ten arts and culture strategies that various communities have used to achieve economic or social development goals, and he gives examples for each.

Building Strong Economies through Arts and Culture
1. Create Jobs
2. Stimulate Trade through Cultural Tourism
3. Attract Investment by Creating Live/Work Zones for Artists
4. Diversify the Local Economy
5. Improve Property and Enhance Value

Building Social Connections through Arts and Culture
1. Promote Interaction in Public Space
2. Increase Civic Participation through Cultural Celebrations
3. Engage Youth
4. Promote Stewardship of Place
5. Broaden Participation in the Civic Agenda

Of course, most of us might say that we want to do all of these. And the reality is that while a community may focus on one or two of these strategies, there can/will be benefits that flow into some of the other areas as well.

The rest of the Borrup book goes through a very detailed process that communities can follow to reach consensus on what they want their particular arts and cultural plan to look like and accomplish. Under each of these steps, there are set tasks. Go here if you want to see them in the Table of Contents.

Steps for Creative Community Builders
1. Assess Your Situation and Goals
2. Identify and Recruit Effective Partners
3. Map Values, Strengths, Assets, and History (My note: This is where you figure out who you are and what’s your story.)
4. Focus on Your Key Asset, Vision, Identity, and Core Strategies
5. Craft a Plan That Brings the Identity to Life
6. Securing Funding, Policy Support, and Media Coverage

Take this process with a grain of salt: there are examples in the case studies, where an entrepreneurial, charismatic artist or community leader came up with an idea, took a risk and helped turn a community in a new direction, and I would put Jeffrey Parks and Musikfest in this category. The example from the Borrup book that remains most vivid in my mind is Waterfire in Providence, RI. This public lighting of fires on the river was started by the artist Barnaby Evans as a one-time event in 1994, and now it happens several times throughout the summer and fall. I’ve never been to see it, but it gives me chills just looking at the website. It seems like such a powerful ritual and it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

But, barring an Arts and Cultural Superhero, Borrup provides a useful guide for communities to undertake this work together. It’s something for Pottstown to consider because there’s a history of the community not working together and skepticism around new ideas. Mr. Parks and his “Friends of Jeff” volunteer posse made Musikfest happen as soon as Bethlehem Steel closed, and it was pretty much a success from the start. They weren’t trying to make a comeback from a long-term economic slide. They weren’t operating in an atmosphere of cynicism and apathy. If a vision, goals and a plan for Pottstown come out of a collaborative process, you will by definition “broaden participation in the civic agenda,” and you would be repairing the way the community functions, which I think is a critical steppingstone to finally improving the local economy.

Another important note: The ArtsQuest organization has three goals.
1. Arts access for all
2. Urban revitalization
3. Organizational sustainability

While “economic development” is part of urban revitalization, note how their main mission is the arts. The economic benefits flow from their carrying out their arts mission in an ever-evolving, sustained way. They have renovated and occupy a building called The Banana Factory, which led to the eventual private sector renovation of nearby buildings. (Mr. Parks said, “Government is not the vehicle. You need the entrepreneurial activity of investors and NGOs.” That’s non-governmental organizations/non-profits.) The Banana Factory includes 28 artists’ studios, digital photo classes and programs for at-risk youth. They have the only hot glass studio in the Lehigh Valley. And, as mentioned in Evan’s piece, they are embarking on the SteelStacks project, which will provide entertainment and community gathering spaces for a year-round program of events, sealing Bethlehem’s identity as the arts and culture hub of the Lehigh Valley.

I think Pottstown’s economic future lies in an arts and cultural strategy, tied to sustainability and its industrial past. This is why I get excited about pie, or green manufacturing of hip stuff, or – I don’t know – the thought of an industrial-sized, noisy atelier filled with blacksmiths, welders, and stone and steel artists/sculptors, creating massive installations that will end up all over the world. I think the elements are there for a good story, by which I mean: there’s something authentic and real there that residents, visitors and investors could believe in. As to the specific form of that strategy – I don’t presume to have the answer. But I know it’s there, within Pottstown’s borders, in its history and its people, just waiting to be discovered.

8 thoughts on “The Arts and Community & Economic Development

  1. Great article Sue. Please share with your readers info about PACA and all the great things happeneing downtown – festivals, First Saturdays, Sunday in the Park Music Series, The Schuylkill River Festival, Carousel of Flavor…….as well as great family opportunities starting with Pottsgrove Manor, Pottstown Symphony Orchestra – in additional to not only performances and exhibits – but educational opportunities through the arts at Gallery School of Pottstown, TriPAC, Schuylkill Regional Dance Company and High Street Music Company.

    1. Thanks, Erika. I had in mind a follow-up post regarding these events & opportunities (and the website!) You’re one step ahead of me!

  2. Nice summary Sue.
    It occurs to me that part of what the book recommends, trying to build consensus through a collaborative process, was what the Urban Land Institute exercise at The Hill School was all about.
    I found that event (what I saw of it) useful in that with guests in town, we managed to put our feuds down for a few days and talk collectively about how to help our town.
    What came out of that was not a shared vision, it seems to me, but a process. Which is OK if it takes us somewhere.
    What was created was a sense that economic development needed to be taken out of the hands of squabbling elected officials and put into the hands of a new entity, which has dubbed itself The Pottstown Parnership and will morph out of the old PAID organization — primarily because PAID is sitting on some money it can use to get things started.
    I had high hopes for this organization, and still retain a portion of that, but its been a year and the lawyers are still writing the by-laws. I suspect the public has already largely forgotten about it or dismissed it by now.
    I understand the necessity of being thorough, but no one ever correctly predicts all eventualities and I don’t wonder if we’re not seeing a diminishing of returns on time investment by taking so long.
    You can only promise the people of Pottstown revitalization so many times before its absence starts to get noticed. This then hampers new efforts by feeding a sense of skepticism (visible daily in The Mercury’s Sound-Off columns) that the next effort must overcome before it can begin to gain ground.
    I think we lost some momentum from the time of the ULI summit until now, along with some sorely needed community confidence and we may well now have to convince them this is not just another chimera.
    I’m hoping the time investment being made will result in something that hits the ground running with something substantial and convinces the public at large that this is still something worth supporting. After all this time, that first public step becomes extremely crucial.
    On the all-plus side, the Open Door/Open House event being planned by the community (led by the school district I believe) for Sept. 11 offers an opportunity for people to get together and celebrate on the common ground of recognizing what we do have here and to perhaps state considering Amy’s question.
    She may well be right.
    Perhaps we should figure out what/who we are before we start deciding what to do. I just hate the thought that answering the first question might take too long.

    1. First, Evan, I must ask if you are moonlighting as an SAT tutor?? Anyone who’s using “chimera” in everyday conversation could probably be making a lot more $$ in that field!

      Second, third and fourth… yes, yes, yes. It’s frustrating, to say the least. Momentum is being lost/has been lost since the ULI report came out. I try to mention the Partnership every few blog posts for just that reason – so people won’t forget: there’s supposed to be a plan and some ACTION here, people! Let’s keep our eye on the ball! And I will be getting to the ULI report very soon in a more in-depth way very shortly.

      The 9/11 activities are a great way to bring everyone together. The Gallery seems to be an organizer as well; I’ve gotten several emails from them on that.

      Not that this would take the place of formal community revitalization work sessions, but I’ve been thinking about holding monthly Positively Pottstown happy hours at different spaces around town, just so all the people involved in any way, or looking to get involved, can hang out informally and can count on it happening on a regular basis. (I will NOT be picking up the bar tab, though, so don’t get your hopes up!)

  3. Love the informal get together approach Sue. Innovation – Imagination we must begin to see the light and the town leaders need to openly communicate with the residents. Maybe they need to work with an “Image Consultant” because we desperately need for them to involve us in the selection of the PAID person and the ULI Report recommendations so what is happening there???

    C’mon guys, throw us a crumb, you will be surprised how it will be appreciated!!

  4. @Sue: I have always thought Pottstown’s most recognized asset was, and still is, Mrs. Smith’s. Yes, it’s gone, but the foil stamping plant is still here in all its yellow glory; as is Smith Family Plaza, and a long history that begins with the YMCA. Just to toss it out: Pottstown’s native celebration, its MusikFest doppleganger, should be a three-day pie bake-off.

    @Evan: You’re right; ULI and Partnership momentum has evaporated. The best to be hoped for now, sadly, is for PAID’s purse (when finally freed from the legalese) to be used to do something dramatic, akin to the Circle Of Progress project when it launched. If the money only dribbles out on less-than-stunning stuff, no one’s going to notice or care.

    1. Hi, Joe – yes, I could totally get behind a major pie festival.

      The ULI-recommended Partnership is still going to happen, though. Right? It’s just going to have to jumpstart itself. And it will have to be stunning, as you say, or it’s not going to get the town over this hump.

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