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Best of CoBiz: Getting business to support the arts

Neil McKenzie //March 14, 2013//

Best of CoBiz: Getting business to support the arts

Neil McKenzie //March 14, 2013//

On a visit to Winston-Salem, I discovered that this city of 230,000 is known as the “City of the Arts.” Like most cities in America, Winston-Salem has felt the impact of the economic downturn and probably a bit more. The city was founded on tobacco, textiles and furniture – all of which have been subjected to changing consumer behavior, foreign competition and outsourcing.

Winston-Salem is home to many familiar brands such as RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company, HanesBrands, Inc., Wachovia (now part of Wells Fargo), BB&T and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. The city is in the process of transforming itself into a hub of medical research, high technology and bio-tech – all with a good measure of success.

The city also has the distinction of being the first U.S. city to create an arts council. The Winston-Salem Arts Council was founded more than 60 years ago and was created with private money. Today, the Arts Council still relies on private funds with very little monies coming from the public sector.

I was curious as to how an arts council could flourish for so long on just funding from businesses and individuals. Sure, Winston-Salem is home to many of the richest families in the country, but something more was going on here. I dropped by the Arts Council and told them I was from Colorado and I was wondering how they could run their organization with little public money.

They said Colorado was fortunate that it had in place many public funding channels for the arts. I was thinking that they were the fortunate ones not to have to rely on public funding, especially when state budgets are being slashed.

The city has a brand new arts center which occupies a large building which was once one of the original Hanes textile manufacturing facilities. The Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts contains a theater, classrooms, workshops and a gallery. The center is an integral part of the city’s downtown redevelopment efforts and the results are clearly being felt.

Before too long, I was talking to the man himself, Milton Rhodes. I posed the question to him, “How did Winston-Salem get businesses to generously support the arts?” His response was three words: “Recruit and retain.”

I followed up with the question, “So you told them that supporting the arts would help them recruit and retain employees as they seek to develop the local economy with new technologies?” “No”, he said, “That’s what they told us.”

Colorado can take some lessons from the Winston-Salem experience in using arts and culture to assist in economic development. If a company is to grow in the new economy it must be able to recruit and retain talented employees. The arts and other cultural resources contribute to a vibrant community, one where people want to be. We are fortunate in Colorado to have a large creative sector which we need to continue to promote and capitalize on.

A good example of how important a vibrant community can be in a business’s location decision can be seen in ConocoPhillips’ selection of Louisville as the location for their Global Technology and Corporate Learning Center.

The company’s location decision was heavily influenced by Louisville topping “Best Places to Live in 2009” by Money Magazine, as well as its proximity to the Colorado School of Mines, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and Denver International Airport. What is interesting about this case is that the City of Louisville did not provide ConocoPhillips with any tax incentives or other forms of enticement. Clearly, Louisville is a place ConocoPhillips wants to be!

Creating a vibrant community should be one of our top priorities as we move forward in our economic development efforts. Likely gone is the old model of building a stadium or other public venue with public money. Many of these efforts haven’t created high paying jobs or spurred innovation and entrepreneurship.

Arts and culture can play an important part in creating communities in Colorado where people and companies want to be. The value of arts in culture in economic development can be summed up in three words: Recruit and retain.