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Arts spark downtown revival.

Hotels, office buildings, convention centers -- these are the real indicators of economic progress in American cities. Or so goes conventional wisdom.

But some cities are discovering there's a softer path -- that investment in the arts offers surprising economic and social benefits as well.

This realization has come full-circle in Roanoke, Va. In the early part of this century, the heart of its cultural activity was the nearby Mill Mountain Theater.

Unfortunately, the old theater burned to the ground in the 1970s. And it wasn't much longer before Roanoke's downtown hit hard times.

During the next decade, the downtown was plagued by problems typical of many inner cities -- vacant buildings, drug dealers, prostitutes. People stayed away. Businesses shut their doors.

To reverse the decline, Roanoke's business community turned to the old theater as the linchpin for economic development. A local association banded the Mill Mountain Theater together with fledgling art, science and history museums into one common Center in the Square, hoping to attract support for the downtown.

Center in the Square debuted in 1983 with the help of state, local and private funds and soon became Virginia's largest cultural center. "Center in the Square helped to spur the renaissance of the downtown area," said Jeff Walker, the center's marketing director.

Thirteen years later, Center in the Square has served over 4 million visitors, attracted more than $250 million in capital investment for Roanoke's downtown, brought over 165 new businesses to the area and created an estimated $25 million in direct and indirect annual economic benefits.

In Chicago, the arts have given a huge economic boost to areas like the Uptown district. In the 1920's Uptown was hopping -- the cultural hub and theater district for all of Chicago. By mid-century, though, the area had fallen on hard times.

Over the last few years, local arts organizations have banded together to breathe new life into Uptown. According to a study released by the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation in August, the arts in Uptown now employ at least 950 people and generate $4.5 million in economic impact, including indirect spending on restaurants, parking and other services.

Additionally, half of Uptown's arts organizations have made substantial renovations -- an average of $143,000 per property -- which have improved the community's appearance.

Nurturing the arts may even be more effective than the more familiar kinds of business and economic development, some experts believe.

"Very few industries generate that type of induced spending," said Randy Cohen, director of research and information at Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit coalition of 3,800 community-based arts agencies. He was referring to the money that museum-goers, for example, spend on parking, restaurants and shops.

But along with the economic and community benefit of new arts facilities in long-neglected urban centers, there are trade offs.

Some worry that arts development will only attract wealthy suburbanites or tourists, leaving residents with no better quality of life, or it will displace them by pushing up housing costs.

Once a richly diverse place where expensive homes sat blocks away from areas where the homeless lived, Chicago's Uptown is quickly turning into a trendy place to live, especially for suburbanites who are relocating back to the city.

"As the area gentrifies, we want to make sure the cultural mix doesn't disappear," said Arlene Crewdson, executive director of Uptown's Pegasus Players theater group.

"What often happens is that there are a lot of artists living in the area and then it becomes gentrified, and then the artists can't afford to live there anymore," she adds.

To avoid that outcome, Crewdson and other arts organizations are encouraging merchants and developers to set aside resources for artists -- such as living or work space, rooms for classes or performances, or a percentage of money set aside for grants to support artists.

In her view, Uptown' has already shown that the arts can go hand in hand with both the development and the diversity of cities.

"Streets that used to be considered `iffy' now have condos on them going for $100,000," said Crewdson. But she is also quick to add: "I used to think Uptown was a place that would never become gentrified, but that is not the case."

Contacts: Jeff Walker, (540) 342-5700; Randy Cohen, (202) 371-2830; Arlene Crewdson, (773) 878-9761. [C] The American News Service.

Jason Wilson is a free-lance writer based in Haddonfield, N.J His work has appeared in the New York Times, New Jersey Monthly, Philadelphia City Paper, and the New Jersey Reporter and Ambassador.
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Title Annotation:benefits of urban investments in the arts
Author:Wilson, Jason
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jan 6, 1997
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