Delta Regional Authority begins pilot program to bolster art and culture

by George Jared ([email protected]) 515 views 

Art and culture have always been a way of life in eastern Arkansas and now at least one organization thinks both can become economic drivers in the region.

The Delta Regional Authority will spend $460,000 on its Delta Creative Place Making Initiative, DRA co-chairman Chris Masingill said. DRA will partner with ArtPlace America, the National Association of Development Organizations, and the National Association of Counties to launch the program.

It’s difficult to attract large manufacturers to revitalize a local economy and many communities are at max efficiency when it comes to development, Artplace America Executive Director Jaime Bennett said. These often impoverished communities need to innovate and tap into a resource that virtually all cities and towns have – artisans.

“Artists are the one asset that are in every single community … every community already has people who can dance, sing, and tell stories,” Bennett said.

DRA will offer matching grants of up to $30,000. Match can be in-kind labor. Workshops will be held across the region this summer, Masingill said.

One primary focus will be tourism. The Delta is rich in musical traditions and history, and many communities need to capitalize on one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the country, Masingill said. Northeast Arkansas has a slew of historical sites that lure tourists such as Johnny Cash’s home in Dyess, or The Beatles Tribute in Walnut Ridge. But there are many more not being utilized, Masingill said.

About 28 million tourists visited Arkansas in 2015, and it generated $7.2 billion in economic impacts, according to state data. The state collected $374 million in taxes from tourism, and local municipalities hauled in $134 million in taxes.

Art and culture-related economic activity has surged in recent years. It’s estimated this economic sector generates $729 billion, or 4% of the nation’s GDP and employs about 1 million workers, Masingill said. From 1998-2014, the sector grew by 35% or $1.1 trillion, he added.

An example of the kind of arts and culture development envisioned is a multi-purpose hub under development in Utica, Miss. The hub will ultimately provide broad band internet service, but at the same time its founder hopes to help locals rediscover the area’s history through the agrarian practices used through the generations in the region. History and art will be offered along the internet service at the hub, Bennett said.

The program will be a pilot, but if it’s successful it will receive additional funds in the coming years, officials said. A stronger arts and culture base will not only directly create jobs and economic opportunities, it will also help attract traditional job creators, Masingill said. Quality of life is becoming a significant factor when companies decide where to locate, he said.

“We want to increase connectivity,” he said.