The Economic Benefits of a Strong Local Arts Community
Business and art. At seemingly opposite ends of the human spectrum, the two are seldom mentioned in the same sentence, with the exception of economic-driven sponsorships that have led to some of our nation’s largest arts venues bearing the names of some of our country’s largest businesses. Yet in reality, the two are intrinsically intertwined, dependent on the existence of the other for both to succeed. Skeptical? Consider this: A study released by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development showed that in fiscal year 2010, 7.6 million people attended arts events in Maryland, generating $1 billion in economic impact.
The study also showed the arts generated an estimated $36.5 million in state and local taxes, and provided 10,671 full-time equivalent jobs which generated $385 million in salaries. In addition, every $1 of the arts organizations’ operating budgets generated $3.78 in additional economic activity.
In Harford County alone, in fiscal year 2011 the arts supported 4,149 jobs, contributed $121,562 in direct expenditures and attracted 132,000 residents and visitors to local events, according to the Harford County Cultural Arts Board. And with the towns of Bel Air and Havre de Grace designated as two of the 16 Arts & Entertainment Districts in the state, the economic impact of art is growing and appears poised to explode with the development of a brand new Center for the Arts.
Art History in Harford
Recognizing the cultural benefits of a strong arts community, in 1973 the Harford County Council created the Harford County Cultural Arts Board (HCCAB). As a government-appointed public commission with the mission to promote, expand and sustain the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Harford County, HCCAB grants $90,000 annually to more than 40 local arts and cultural groups.
According to the HCCAB website, “For many years, the group has recognized the need for a community arts facility that would be used by local artists and arts organizations and for the benefit of all those living in and around Harford County, Maryland.” To that end, in 2007, HCCAB, supported by a grant from the Harford County Office of Economic Development, contracted Toronto-based arts management consultant Janis A. Barlow & Associates to conduct and prepare a community cultural assessment and plan for the county.
The end result, “A Cultural Plan for Harford County, Maryland,” found that “Harford County currently has the demographic indicators – population growth rate projections, educational levels and income – to warrant a public investment in ongoing and integrated cultural planning and facility development, with or without the influence of the BRAC initiative.” The report also showcased the lack of adequate facility space to accommodate performing arts groups and presenters, and led to the preparation of a more detailed Feasibility Study developed by the same outside consultant.
Completed in January 2008, the Feasibility Study found that “A growing and prosperous market environment, a demonstrated affinity for cultural experiences and gaps in the cultural facility inventory within 50 miles of Bel Air all represent a significant opportunity for the County to offer a unique facility.”
Enter the Center
Even before the Cultural Plan was commissioned by HCCAB, in December 2004, a group of artists, business owners, educators and patrons of the arts met to explore the idea of establishing a regional arts center. As a result, the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts (Center for the Arts) was incorporated in March 2005 and received its non-profit, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status in November 2005.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Salle Kunkel Filkins, the new organization was formed with the mission to establish a regional center in Harford County, and works closely with HCCAB (which as a government entity is not permitted to fundraise). In 2007, Filkins brought in Bob Corea, a former investment banker, to serve as director of finance. Filkins says, “Our goal is for this to be a self-sustaining Center, and having Bob here has enabled us to approach this through a business model.”
Corea confirms, “I wanted to approach this as a business, so we have done a lot of research.” Shortly after joining the Center for the Arts, Corea reached out to 200 Harford County businesses and personally met with 48 to discuss the new center and distribute a questionnaire. From the 20 responses he received, that small sampling of businesses alone indicated that they would utilize a new center on 95 separate occasions within the span of a year, from offsite meeting space for 10 to an annual gala for 500.
Bolstered by the encouraging results to date, Corea conducted a case study to determine if sufficient funding would be available; drafted a business plan to forecast revenue and expenses; and revised the case study to reflect the changing economic climate. In the end, says Corea, “Everything was coming back so positive, even using conservative estimates, that we worried we were missing something.” That led him to contact well-known economist Anirban Basu of Sage Policy Group and ask him to review all the data to confirm its accuracy. Once Basu gave his thumbs-up, Corea knew for sure they were on the right track.
A Vision for the Future
In October 2011, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Harford County Government and the Center for the Arts to build a new cultural center on a 41-acre site in Abingdon bequeathed by Mrs. Emily Bayless Graham. Located at the intersection of Route 24 and Wheel Road, the new center will feature theatres ranging from 100 to 1,200 seats; two humidity-controlled galleries; rehearsal areas; classrooms; meeting space for 10-300; and gala space to accommodate 300-600.
New York-based H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture is providing design services for the center. The firm’s experience includes work on the Vivian Beaumont Center at Lincoln Center, the renovation of Radio City Musical Hall and the renovation of Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre. Hardy’s plan includes a green roof, LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) construction, and eventually an elevated green walkway connecting the arts center property with the park area across Route 24. A drainage area will be outfitted with a fountain and a walking path will lead to a sculpture garden.
Filkins and Corea have big ideas for the finished center, ranging from catching mid-size acts traveling between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. to developing programs and opportunities for special needs groups. Filkins says the center could also house art exhibits from other facilities. “The Walters or Baltimore Museum of Art could showcase part of a collection here, bringing art to Harford County while also attracting more visitors to the full exhibit in Baltimore,” Filkins explains.
Benefits to Business
As with any large quasi-public project, the new center is not without its detractors. But Corea cautions, “There’s a lot of misinformation out there right now.” Cost is a big one. While various numbers have been tossed around, Corea says in reality they don’t have a hard and fast figure yet. He says on average, a “quality arts center” costs between $400 to $450 per square foot.
Other issues include environmental, traffic and lighting concerns, all of which Corea says are unfounded. “Environmentally, less deforestation will occur than virtually any other use for this parcel,” he says. And with a recent traffic study indicating that 79,000 cars per day drive on Route 24, with a cap of 550 spots in the parking lot, center traffic will only nominally increase use, and primarily at off-peak hours. As far as lighting concerns go, Corea says, “We’re not building a football stadium. There will be ground lighting, and we can buffer any direct impact with trees and other screening. The architect actually has software that allows us to ‘see’ the view from neighboring properties and make adjustments.”
Corea concludes, “We are not trying to build the Kennedy Center here. We want something that’s uniquely appropriate for Harford County. We’d rather have a 500-seat theater that’s used five days per week than a 3,000 seat that’s never used.”
Fact vs. Fiction on the New Center
Supporters of the new center say the benefits far outweigh any objections. In practical terms, the new center would offer the largest meeting space in Harford County, providing a local option for large employers who are currently forced to travel to downtown Baltimore for events.
More subjectively, Corea asserts a cultural arts center can offer a better quality of life to area residents and employees. “Like middle schools teaching ballroom dancing, we think it’s important to highlight culture and civility in today’s world,” he says. It’s difficult to argue with results like those seen in Paducah, Ky., when after the creation of a similar cultural arts center, the community was named one of the top places in the country to live.
Filkins points out that a vibrant arts community also assists businesses in attracting better talent. She says, “When we had businesses come in, they all felt it would make them more competitive in hiring. And it’s not just the defense industry, it’s doctors and other professionals looking for a rich cultural environment.”
In a press release issued by the Maryland State Arts Council, Tina Benjamin of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development is quoted as saying, “Arts & Entertainment Districts have a ‘spillover effect’ that creates livelier and more desirable places to live and work, which has had a magnetic effect, attracting even businesses that are not necessarily related to the arts.”
How Business Can Get Involved
For businesses that would like to show their support for the new center, there are a number of ways to get involved, including the popular “Dancing for the Arts” annual event, which pits local “celebrities” against each other in a friendly competition. Businesses can elect to sponsor the event or enter a dancer. Each dancer sets a goal of his or her choosing (past amounts have ranged from $1,500 to $30,000) and votes are $1 each. According to Filkins, “This is a great way for corporations to get publicity and form connections. We have nearly 40 ‘Dancing’ alum now and they still get together regularly.”
The Center for the Arts is also looking for naming rights sponsors for both the entire center and areas such as theaters and galleries.
Businesses can also donate, become corporate members or inquire about serving on the Center’s Board of Trustees. Says Filkins, “As we move from the quiet phase of our fundraising to our capital campaign, it will be critical for us to have business community leaders to help us raise the one-third private funds required to start construction.” And with a condition of the site bequest linked to substantial completion of the Center for the Arts by January 2019, there is pressure to act quickly.
For additional information on how you can help, contact Center for the Arts Director of Corporate Development and Public Relations Lyndi Richards at 410-838-2177 or Lyndi@centerfortheartsharford.org.