Artists play key role in local economy

Even as the World Trade Center towers lay smoldering on the ground in New York City nearly four years ago, then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, when asked what Americans could do for New York, responded without hesitation: “Come here as a tourist. Go out to dinner in one of our fine restaurants. See a Broadway show.”

A somewhat counterintuitive response, perhaps, considering the immense tragedy unfolding at the time. But Mr. Giuliani did make two key points that those of us in the arts know well: The performing arts have an intrinsic power to heal the mind and spirit, and they’re also a powerful economic engine that’s strong enough to overcome even extreme adversity.

Since the advent of the Asheville Film Festival two years ago, I’ve seen a steady stream of articles in local newspapers reporting on the film industry in Western North Carolina. Many of the organizations quoted in these articles, such as AdvantageWest, tout the film industry’s local economic impact and stress the need to attract more big-budget Hollywood films, suggesting that this could be WNC’s economic savior.

And while I was pleased to see the recent Mountain Xpress story highlighting the need to support local filmmakers instead of wooing the fickle Hollywood dollar [“Lights, Camera … Not So Much Action,” April 6 Xpress], there’s another local industry that already contributes far more to the local economy, despite a marked lack of attention and support: Asheville’s nonprofit arts industry.

A recent article in the Asheville Citizen-Times reported that the film industry spent $235 million in North Carolina in 2004. And according to AdvantageWest, the industry spent $5.5 million in WNC in 2002. And a 2003 study out of Appalachian State University, titled “Economic Impact of Non-Profit Arts Organizations in the State of North Carolina,” pegged the statewide economic impact of nonprofit arts organizations at $723 million — more than three times the film industry’s financial clout.

In 2001, Asheville was one of 91 cities included in a national survey conducted by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization with offices in New York and Washington, D.C. This report found that nonprofit arts groups in Asheville had a $61 million economic impact — 11 times the figure AdvantageWest reported for the film industry’s impact in all of Western North Carolina.

To give you an idea of what $61 million is, in 1998 the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners awarded $50,000 to the employees of Champion International to help them buy the company’s two Haywood County paper mills — because of Champion’s economic impact on neighboring Buncombe County. County Manager Wanda Greene cited a $75 million figure, calling it a “tremendous impact.”

The Americans for the Arts study calculated the economic impact of nonprofit arts groups by determining how much they spend each year (including salaries, rent, printing, etc.) and then calculating how much audiences attending these groups’ performances spend over and above the cost of a ticket (on things like parking, dinner, drinks, etc.). Asheville has a population of 68,889, and local arts organizations were reportedly spending $14.6 million to generate $46.3 million in audience spending, yielding a total figure of about $61 million. And that money supports 2,100 full-time-equivalent jobs, the study noted, making local arts nonprofits the fourth largest employer in the Asheville area — behind Mission Hospitals, the Buncombe County Schools and Baxter Healthcare, and ahead of Blue Ridge Paper Products (formerly Champion International).

Forsythe County, N.C., also took part in the Americans for the Arts survey. That county, which includes Winston-Salem, has a population of 306,067. Its arts organizations spent $49.6 million that year, and their audiences spent $27 million, for a total of $76.6 million and 2,765 full-time-equivalent jobs supported.

Forsythe County’s population is about four-and-a-half times the size of Asheville’s, yet I’m struck by how close the impact numbers are. Of particular note is the fact that Asheville audiences spent 1.75 times as much as those in a significantly bigger urban area. For every dollar they spent, nonprofit arts groups in Asheville generated $3.16 (spent at local stores, parking garages, restaurants, etc.). Forsythe County arts groups, on the other hand, generated just 53 cents on the dollar.

Since its founding in 2002, my small organization, the North Carolina Stage Company, has awarded more than 100 contracts and paid out more than $200,000 in fees to local artists. And despite operating on a shoestring budget of $208,000, it may be pumping $657,280 — or even more — into our local economy every year, based on the findings of the Americans for the Arts survey. The N.C. Stage Company is only one of dozens of arts organizations within the Asheville city limits, and we achieve all this even as the city and county have cut arts funding every year I’ve lived here — and despite the state legislature’s cutting $2 million from the N.C. Arts Council budget.

The survey also found that Asheville’s nonprofit arts groups generated $1.6 million annually in local-government revenue (in the form of taxes, fees, etc.). Yet the current city and county budgets show a total of $356,896 in combined support for the arts (consisting of $300,000 for the maintenance and upkeep of Pack Place, $36,896 in rent subsidies for the Asheville Symphony and a $20,000 grant to the Asheville Area Arts Council). That translates into a financial return of more than 4 to 1. And to make matters worse, the Arts Council, which gave out about $120,000 in operating-support grants last year, is no longer able to raise enough money and is cutting the program.

In other words, Asheville’s thriving arts community, much ballyhooed by the Chamber of Commerce in national publications, is supported on the backs of the hard-working artists themselves (and a small core of dedicated donors). Isn’t it time we stopped taking this incredible local resource for granted and gave it some attention and financial support? Asheville’s nonprofit arts groups cannot continue pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy each weekend without more help.

So by all means, find ways to boost the film industry. But keep in mind that without similar consideration, an existing industry that has been a cash cow for the area — and a major draw for cultural tourism — will fade and die.

[Charlie Flynn-McIver is artistic director of the North Carolina Stage Company. He and his wife, Angie (both native North Carolinians), moved here from New York City in August 2001 to start the theater company.]

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