Divisive cultural issues have been the hallmark of this year’s legislative session, but Arkansas lawmakers may have found common culture on arts and technology as an economic engine this past week.
SB 531 unanimously passed the Senate Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs committee on Wednesday (March 17) and now awaits consideration in the Senate.
The measure would create a “Legislative Bootcamp” focused on the arts and technology aimed at strengthening existing regional resources in tourism, agribusiness, technology, health and wellness, and cottage industries.
The primary bill sponsors are Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, and Rep. Les Warren, R-Hot Springs. However, there is a broad bipartisan coalition of co-sponsors, including 26 additional senators and 49 additional representatives, suggesting the legislation should easily make it to the governor’s desk.
Sen. Elliott told Senate committee members last week it’s too often the case that economic developers in the state are looking to locate a new factory, but they don’t pay enough attention to the resources that are already in place.
“This is about building what’s already in place,” she said.
Arkansans for the Arts, an organization that promotes economic development through the arts, has divided the state into eight unique zones.
Two legislators from each zone would be appointed to the bootcamp. This group would have eight members from the Senate and eight from the House. Participants would then meet and research the most viable arts and technology developments that would spur tourism, non-profit arts and culture growth.
The first meeting would be held no later than Oct. 1, and the group would meet in accordance with the directives of the co-chairs. Sen. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, noted the bootcamp would essentially be a legislative committee and any expenses relating to meetings, organization, or others are already covered under the current state budget, meaning no new money will be needed for this project.
For example, in Northeast Arkansas the region has a rich history and deep connection with the artists in the early Rock-n-Roll era. Johnny Cash’s boyhood home is in Dyess and many artists including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others performed at venues in the area.
Assets in this area that might need further promotion and development might include the Cash boyhood home or the Rock-n-Roll Museum in Newport.
The arts and connected sectors are a boon to the Arkansas economy. Each year the non-profit arts and culture sector in the state generates about $2.9 billion in economic activity in the state, according to the bill. This activity generates almost 34,000 jobs in the state. Nearly 30% of the state’s workforce is employed directly or indirectly by creative industries.
A recent survey revealed that 82% of state residents believe the arts are critical to business growth, and 91% believe the arts are crucial for well-rounded academic growth for students.
Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, asked who would be in charge of the bootcamps. Elliott said they will be jointly co-chaired by the two leaders’ arts caucus, of which she represents the state Senate.
The Bureau of Legislative Research will provide research resources for the project. The bootcamp will be disbanded Aug. 31, 2022. By that time, it should have produced an extensive report detailing the state’s arts, cultural and technology resources inventory.
It will also come up with a funding amount needed to create, update, and maintain a statewide database that contains this information. Additionally, the bill will devise a plan to obtain new funding sources and leveraging existing funding and assets.