A series of creative economy roundtables in the “gateway” cities of Massachusetts is demonstrating how an arts, culture and business collaboration can transform a community by building on the creative and social capital unique to a region. The first roundtable took place in New Bedford, MA in February and demonstrated how older, post industrial cities are becoming 21st century innovators of economic renewal.
Presented by Mass Inc, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New Bedford Economic Development Council and hosted by AHA! which organizes New Bedford’s free monthly arts and culture night, the event showcased the historic downtown of New Bedford, a coastal city in the southeastern region of the state. Building on its history as a diverse seaport with a modern network of over 100 working artist studios, a plethora of arts institutions and a fleet of business owners who believe that shaping a sense of “place” builds a strong economic foundation, New Bedford has transformed its downtown, placing itself ahead of the curve in weathering the current economic recession.
Speaking to an audience from across the state, Lee Heald, Director of AHA! and Craig Dutra, President of the Community Foundation of Southeastern MA, both cited a recent study from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Policy Analysis, describing that in 2009 alone AHA! received $35,000 in state funding and returned over $734,000 for the city, leveraging an impact of $21 dollars for every state dollar spent on the arts and culture in New Bedford.
Katherine Knowles, Executive Director of the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center, which attracts world class entertainment to its 1200 seat theater, also participated in the event’s panel. In addition to headlining acts, the “Z” as it’s known, engages in community involvement, “I really believe we have an obligation… to reflect the community,” said Knowles. “Who you are is really important. And we’re going to put it right on the main stage.”
At the same time she acknowledges the need for a multi-layered approach in building a creative economy, “The political will of what is happening in New Bedford is extraordinary… And I really believe without that, you are up against a huge obstacle.”
City of New Bedford Mayor Scott W. Lang, on the other hand placed creators at the center of the economic recovery, “One of the reasons we have come through this recession as well as we have, is because of the Zeiterion Theatre, because of the Art School, because of all of our different non-profits, because of the number of artisan shops now and mill space that’s being developed [into artists studios]… How do you revive an economy?” He asked, “It’s based on the creative economy.”
Included in the mayor’s list is the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts downtown New Bedford campus where the roundtable took place. In collaboration with the city and state, the university took an unprecedented risk by renovating the city’s historic but dilapidated “Star Store,” and turned it into a flagship arts campus that anchors the downtown arts scene. According to the school’s Dean, Adrian Tío, the Star Store is an, “Arts incubator.”
“People come here to study with us. And they end up living here and they end up buying here. They end up telling their friends to come here. And they become a magnet,” says Tío. “It’s a real attractor all year long.”
Massachusetts State Senator Mark C. W. Montigny who championed the building’s renovation with State Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral, acknowledged, “It was a lot of risk… it cost a lot of money… [but] we created a critical mass here… And now there’s so many restaurants… and cultural institutions that it’s hard to find parking.” Montigny joked, “That is the best problem I thought I’d ever have!”
However, it’s clear that the state was ready to accept the baton from a strong local community that is organized and in charge of its own future. A recurring theme among all panelists was the awareness that reaching out to achieve their common goals was key to building a foundation on which a creative economy could be built.
Lee Blake, President of the New Bedford Historical Society cited efforts at connecting heritage, art and cultural organizations as a means to foster commitment within a community, “As we watched the city reinvent itself through art, history and architecture we understood that we had a role to play in that.” Blake acknowledged, “We are not a moneyed community but working together and holding hands and moving out there is how we get things done.”
Jen Nersesian, Superintendent of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park seconded that notion when she described how the park, which is comprised of 13 city blocks and attracts around 300 thousand visitors per year, was the result of years of unified persistence by community members seeking to establish a state park. When the attempt at a state park failed, the community succeeded in establishing a National Park. “This wasn’t something that was dreamt up by the politicians. It was dreamt up by the people that lived here, that saw the value in what they had,” said Nersesian, “Persistence and that long term vision is really key.”
At the same time, Nersesian described how the park has been set up to reach out to others as a way of doing business. Unlike other national parks, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, “doesn’t own most of the land or resources within park boundaries. But seeks to fulfill its mission by collaborating with partners that do.” Describing how uniquely diverse the city’s population is due to its prior whaling history, Nersesian says, “Those ethnic communities are still thriving in the city today… It’s part of our mission to share that story with the wider American public. But it’s not a story we’re equipped to do without engaging the communities themselves… [the park] is a real partnership park.”
Blake, of the Historical Society encouraged listeners, “Go out there, make the connections. Look and see who’s not at the table, who’s not in the room, whose story needs to be told,” she said. “And help people tell their own story.”
“When you think about engaging in ‘placemaking’,” Lee Heald from AHA! reiterated, “What you’re hearing here is it’s really about people, the stories, the narrative.” She closed by saying, “Out of that comes what we think about as the creative economy.”
With impact studies like those from UMass Dartmouth’s Center for Policy Analysis showing the effectiveness of grassroots “placemaking,” it’s exciting to see how powerful a region’s creative capital is in shaping its own economic stability.
The most recent gateway cities creative economy roundtable took place in Pittsfield, MA and was hosted by the Pittsfield office of Cultural Development and Berkshire Creative. Berkshire Creative is an initiative that stimulates new job growth and economic opportunity by sparking innovative collaborations between artists, designers, cultural institutions and businesses in the western region of Massachusetts. For an article on the Pittsfield roundtable visit: From the Berkshire Eagle: Economic Efforts Lauded
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For more info on this movement, check out these resources:
New Bedford Economic Development Council An integral resource for business owners seeking to start their business in New Bedford