Arts can provide economic boost

March 20, 2011|By DAVID HANLIN

My last column spoke to economic revitalization and challenged the City of Hagerstown's plan to hire a salesperson to sell downtown as a business location. There is a foundation of value in downtown, but it must be strengthened before it can become a sought-after location for new businesses. Two years ago, the "Take Flight" fundraiser for the Barbara Ingram School for The Arts provided a hint of the possible. The butterfly collection around downtown generated tremendous excitement. The streets were busy for weeks. People traveled distances to see the butterflies. Those same people also visited our stores and restaurants.    

Not to suggest that the butterflies are the answer, but that event suggested that the key begins with the arts. Washington County has a tremendous arts community and the city is to be commended for designating the core as the Arts & Entertainment District. However, most laymen do not recognize the arts as an engine of economic development.  

Economists working with Americans for the Arts have determined the average patron spends $20 to $25 more than the price of the ticket when attending an arts event. As an illustration, a patron attending an event at The Maryland Theatre purchases a ticket. That patron often pays for parking, goes out to dinner at a restaurant and has a drink or dessert afterwards. Add up the spending by patrons attending the event, and the number of dollars that are spent is significant. All this spending helps business owners pay rent, buy food, provide jobs and pay taxes. Attract people downtown and the most likely spot for them to spend their money is downtown.  

Americans for the Arts also developed a methodology that takes this individual spending, attendance figures and the organization's spending to determine its annual economic impact. A couple of years ago, an informal study using this methodology was conducted to compare the economic impact of the arts community in a city similar to Hagerstown. In general, people working in the arts in that city were envious of the arts scene in Hagerstown. They cited The Maryland Theatre as having an ability to accommodate a great variety of programs. No Maryland city, other than Baltimore, can claim a fine arts museum, a symphony orchestra and an arts school. But, this informal study revealed that the other city, with fewer arts resources, generated considerably more economic activity than Hagerstown.  

To understand what this means for jobs and the delivery of value to downtown, the results of this informal survey were shared with a restaurateur. He commented that the results were large enough to explain the difference between success and failure for five restaurants. This suggested to me that Hagerstown is missing a great opportunity. Consider the additional jobs, the number of patrons and the buzz that would be downtown if the existing restaurants were more profitable and if more were added. How do we make this come to be here?

Among the lessons learned in this study was that the arts community in the other city collaborated to a great extent and committed to the revitalization of the downtown. There, everyone involved with the arts realized that an important part of their mission was to support other arts organizations and to promote and support restaurants and other businesses downtown. There was considerable joint promotion and cooperation. There was even sharing of some business functions. Could this approach be utilized in Hagerstown? I think so.

If our community can exploit this potential, jobs would be created. People would be drawn downtown to patronize the arts and to visit restaurants. With a critical mass of people downtown looking to spend money, existing restaurants and retail businesses might expand, and more might open. With people and money downtown, value to other businesses would begin to be realized. Employees and customers of these potential businesses would be willing to be here. Then, the question becomes one of whether the businesses can earn a profit.

However, the arts are struggling for survival. State and federal funding is being slashed. The arts need to find creative ways to cut expenses while seeking additional sources of revenue.  

In my last column, I advocated for a private sector solution to downtown revitalization. Maybe the hotel-motel tax proceeds should be shepherded through the private sector, too, as long as the arts organizations commit to working together and to delivering economic activity. A united arts community should embrace the idea that it is the engine for downtown revitalization.  

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident and development coordinator at Washington County Free Library. Readers can e-mail him at

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