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The Economic Impact of Arts & Culture in Your Downtown

Would you like to visit Canada’s greatest street?

The street with that designation for 2012 is Queen Street in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  If you can’t visit in person you can do so online at

Queen Street received top honours as Canada’s Greatest Street in an announcement April 26, 2012 by the Canadian Institute of Planners.  The professional planners’ group released the results of its Great Places in Canada competition, which chose the top street, neighbourhood and public space on the basis of both popularity and planning excellence.  More than 200,000 e-votes were cast by people across Canada over four months.  It was the second annual Great Places competition; the top Great Street in 2011 was Commercial Street in Nanaimo, British Columbia.

What’s remarkable about the top streets and those that ranked highly in the competition – and in a similar competition by the American Planning Association – is that arts and culture are universally cited as among the most important factors in making each successful mainstreet a destination.

In the case of Fredericton’s Queen Street, the judges in the Great Places competition called it the the “spine of the historic and cultural downtown.”

Part of their description of the street reads: “Queen Street feels very open to the community because of the many activities that take place along it. The diverse social and cultural celebrations that take place in Officers’ Square and Phoenix Square tend to spill out along Queen Street. For example, the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival—the largest annual music festival in Atlantic Canada—closes Queen Street to vehicular traffic, creating more space for pedestrians to enjoy the celebratory atmosphere and for vendors and artists to set up booths and display areas.”

Core Economic Resource

Queen Street illustrates that, for purposes of mainstreet economic development, arts and culture have become as important as shops and offices.

Since roughly the turn of the 21st century, many studies and reports have contributed to an understanding of arts and culture as a core economic resource of communities.  To cite just one, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices issued a report in 2009 stating that fostering the arts and culture sector plays a vital role in state economic development.

“Arts and culture-related industries, collectively known as ‘creative industries,’ provide direct economic benefits to states and communities by creating jobs, attracting new investments, generating tax revenues and stimulating tourism and consumer purchases,” concluded the report, entitled Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development

This should be a major focus in the marketing of mainstreets, since creative businesses and organizations tend to cluster downtown.

A major conference on this topic will be taking place this fall in Victoria, British Columbia.  The 2012 Creative City Summit, October 21-23, will have a theme of “Fertile Grounds: Culture in Your Community” and will examine how to integrate culture into communities’ long-term sustainability and economic development.  The conference will be presented by the Creative City Network of Canada, a not-for-profit organization founded 10 years ago to bring together individuals working in municipal cultural service delivery.

Top US Streets

In the United States, the American Planning Association (APA) also places high emphasis on the importance of arts and culture to the development and maintenance of economically healthy streets.  This is reflected in its annual “Great Places in America” competition, and particularly in the category of Great Streets.  Descriptions of the top 10 streets for 2011, led by Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, are replete with references to their cultural richness.

APA publishes analytical material of value to economic developers and other stakeholders in mainstreet revitalization projects. On its web page labeled Characteristics and Guidelines of Great Streets, the association outlines its criteria for judging the character and personality of a street. Competition entrants are encouraged to ask themselves, how does their street:

  • Benefit from community involvement and participation (festivals, parades, open-air markets, etc.)?
  • Reflect the local culture or history?
  • Provide interesting visual experiences, vistas, natural features, or other qualities?

Asking such questions will help mainstreet stakeholders to define their street’s uniqueness and business case for investment. Once that is done, though, even a great mainstreet will not succeed without an effective marketing organization to promote its arts and cultural attractions.

Successful Cultural Offerings

Fortunately such organizations exist and can be emulated by studying their public expressions, particularly their websites.  Examples:

  • The Riverwalk Arts & Entertainment District in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a partnership offering year-round cultural offerings including world-class concerts, plays and musicals, art galleries, shopping, dancing and fine dining.  The District is endlessly creative when it comes to providing incentives to visitors.  It rewards its Facebook fans with cultural prizes, and through its A&E blog offers all kinds of discounts and prizes to visitors in collaboration with business partners.
  • Think big!  That’s the lesson to be learned from the Station North Arts and Entertainment District in Baltimore.  In April and May, it mounted an outdoor exhibition of wall-sized murals by internationally recognized street artists.  Open Walls Baltimore attracted the attention of artists, reviewers and bloggers around the world (such as 12ozProphet) and concluded with a spectacular celebration on Final Friday, May 25.
  •  The Annapolis Arts and Entertainment District, another of Maryland’s economic-development districts established in 2008, demonstrates expertise in how to market an event to reach a carefully targeted audience.  The third annual Annapolis Arts and Crafts Festival on June 9-10 will be a juried outdoor show at the Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium offering a weekend of fine arts and handmade crafts.  At you can instantly see how the event is being positioned for an upscale audience.  The site design is integrated with that of the downtown cultural site maintained by the City of Annapolis Department of Economic Affairs, but the festival is careful to keep its own character.  To quote its sponsorship promotion, “Our distinctive event will attract thousands of affluent, well-educated patrons for a fun-filled weekend in a relaxing outdoor setting, perfect for generating exposure, enhancing corporate branding and image, acquiring sales leads, launching promotions and enjoying a wealth of advertising opportunities.”  As you can see, Annapolis knows how culture and economic development are connected through marketing.

Economic developers and business improvement organizations can find plenty of resources to tell them why arts and culture are critically important to the future success of mainstreets.  They attract both tourists and creative businesses.  The key is to empower an effective marketing organization that has clearly articulated goals appropriate to a community’s heritage and character.

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