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Cities are banking on the arts

Once the first thing to be cut in a time of recession, the arts are proving their worth.

By Carol StricklandCorrespondent / March 1, 2012

Kristin Juarez Tapias (far l.) and Rafael Tapias were among the tourists walking through ‘The Music Box: A Shantytown Sound Laboratory’ in New Orleans, part of the city’s Prospect.2 arts biennial of international contemporary art.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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"It's necessary to invest in our cultural organizations in tough economic times," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a recent opening of a new nonprofit theater. "Make that especially in tough economic times." No wonder, since one-half of 50.5 million tourists in 2011 claimed they came to enjoy the city's cultural attractions, boosting the local economy by $32 billion.

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It's not just recognized cultural hubs touting the value of the arts. Communities as diverse as Paducah, Ky.; Park City, Utah; and Buffalo, N.Y., consider the arts no longer in need of a handout but the go-to source of a hand up. What began as a murmur is becoming a roar.

Partly responsible for this shift is Richard Florida's 2002 book "The Rise of the Creative Class." "Richard Florida has had an impact on every city in the world," says Elaine Mariner, executive director of Colorado Creative Industries, a state economic-development entity. Banking on the arts, the book states, pays off like compound interest.

The new paradigm shows how artists moving into a distressed area (like New York City's SoHo in the 1960s) transforms a sinkhole into a boomlet. First, hipsters in fedoras make it a happening place. Then techies, entrepreneurs, affluent residents, and tourists flock in. Restaurants, galleries, shops, and upscale amenities sprout, bringing jobs, tax dollars, and cachet.

"The bottom line is economic development, isn't it?" asks Sharr Prohaska, associate professor at New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. "Anything in the arts will bring visitors," she says, "but it's also for the people who live there every day. It's a win-win for the community."

Towns and cities across the United States – throughout the world, really – are investing in the arts both to attract deep-pocket cultural tourists and to improve quality of life. Paducah is a model others hope to emulate. In 2000 a blighted, 30-block swath of crumbling housing was "at a turning point," says Mark Barone, a painter who conceived the rescue plan. "Either it was going into the abyss or they'd try to bring it back." He persuaded officials to offer artists incentives (like derelict Victorian houses for $1) to relocate. Now more than 100 artist-residents make the town of 27,000 a tourist magnet.

"It completely changed the dynamic," says Mr. Barone, president of Art­smArt-­cities. "The city commissioners didn't understand the arts that well, but they understood the results. It's a cash cow."

Park City's problem: the off-season

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