Southern U.S. cities lure artists to boost economy

In Raleigh, N.C., where the ballet used to practice in a mall, the arts are blossoming.

A boondock capital built by tobacco traders and textile engineers, Raleigh, N.C., hardly has the mystique of a Boston or a San Francisco.

But when Long Island artists Daniel and Kim Chapin discovered the city on a fluke this year, they quickly put a deposit down on an apartment and found a small studio space. They'd found their nesting place. [Editor's note: The original version got Mr. Chapin's name wrong.]

"I worried a little about how far out of the way it is, but I've been amazed at how fast we've been able to get going," says Mr. Chapin, a printmaker. "The fact is, Raleigh is becoming the arts capital of the South."

Good jobs and cheap housing are the chief reasons behind the growth of many cities, especially in the Sun Belt. But increasingly, proximity to culture – in the form of art galleries, theaters, and symphony halls – is an emerging X factor for young careerists as they decide where to live. As a result, mid-size cities such as Raleigh, Greenville, S.C., and Paducah, Ky., are increasingly promoting their "bohemian index" to leverage population growth and economic development, even in areas not considered cultural hot spots.

"There are some things that are important that are tough to measure in dollars – and that's civilization, soul, identity, and community," says Joel Garreau, author of "Edge City." "When companies, especially, are making moves, it always occurs to somebody in the room that, 'Hey, one of us is going to have to go down there and live in this place.' "

Even for those who don't like art, the presence of a buzzing cultural scene provides the kind of racial and class diversity that many young Americans prefer, writes Richard Florida, an economist at the University of Toronto.

Never mind that the ballet, in Raleigh's case, used to practice in a strip mall. Researchers say that for every $1 spent on arts promotion, a community gets $5 from resulting economic activity. Indeed, new high-rises, condos, and restaurants going up in Raleigh can all be tied in varying degrees to the influx of musicians, painters, printmakers, and dancers, city officials say. Raleigh has consistently made the Top 25 list of fastest-growing US cities in the last three years.

"The arts are a key part of our economic-development strategy," says Raleigh's mayor, Charles Meeker. "Arts add character, a sense of place, and also artists tend to be some of those willing to go to areas of town that aren't so well renovated and help with urban renewal."

Just this year, Tallahassee, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., began actively pursuing artists and promoting their art. In Charlotte, primarily a banking town, city leaders have created an arts exchange that aims to get local art placed in public and private spaces. Tallahassee is for the first time playing up the Florida State University film school by opening a film festival to shake up a sleepy suburban culture.

Paducah, Ky., has coaxed 70 artists from Atlanta, Phoenix, and New York to its LowerTown art district as part of the Artist Relocation Program the city started in 2000, offering subsidized studio space and even healthcare benefits.

"The debate right now is whether it's more successful to go through an organic sort of arts process or do you build a huge stadium and use that as an anchor?" says Steven Pedigo, an urban researcher based in Washington, D.C. "The fact is, cities are realizing you don't get a lot of bang for your buck for large investments in conference centers." In contrast, he says, promoting arts is a bargain.

Public art installations, dance curricula in low-income city schools, and public investments in performance space have dramatically changed the fortunes of Greenville, S.C., which has doubled its workforce in the last 10 years.

To be sure, nearby auto plants have helped, but the revitalization of the decrepit mill village of East Greenville and the popping up of art studios and galleries around the city, oftentimes in borderline warehouse space and strip malls, has created cachet for the old textile capital.

"When we go out to recruit businesses or employees to come here, people look at economics first, but once you get a list of five, six, or seven places, what you look at is the character of the place – do they support the arts?" says Diana Smock, an at-large representative of the Greenville city council. "Those are all factors that give us a real boost."

But there are pitfalls. For one, not everyone appreciates the charm of a place like Raleigh where pig pickins', or roasts, are still the essence of local culture. A friend of the Chapins, for example, lasted three weeks in Raleigh before decamping back to New York. "She said she couldn't take it," says Mr. Chapin.

Although fights over public art installations, which have beset both Raleigh and Greenville, are often seen as promoting healthy debate, they can also be corrosive as artists clash with community elders. Another problem, critics say: An expensive symphony hall, for example, is a nice amenity, but can't by itself guarantee what some pundits call "livability."

But for former New York-based artist Shaun Richards, who now works from a cluttered studio in Raleigh's up-and-coming warehouse district, small, creative cities offer opportunity and exposure nearly impossible to get, for example, in New York's more insular art world.

Most importantly, he says, "Creative people can actually live downtown and work, even though they're usually making only $25,000 a year."

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