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Arts & Economics in Arkansas

Arts and entertainment can bring more than fun and recreation. It can deliver a big economic boost to communities.

The Americans for the Arts released results of its national Arts and Economic Prosperity 5 study recently, showing that 23 of Northwest Arkansas’ nonprofit arts and culture industry spurred $131.2 million in economic activity in that area during 2015. The study is done every five years, so this was the first that reflected the presence of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened to the public in 2011.

The study, completed from data provided by the nonprofits included in the research, shows that nearly 1.8 million people attended arts and culture events in Northwest Arkansas; Crystal Bridges reports having 608,000 visitors during that time period.

According to the study, arts and culture led to the creation of 4,647 jobs, generated $3.4 million in local taxes and $10.7 million in state taxes and resulted in $63.7 million in event-related spending by people who attended or viewed events or displays.

In the southern region of the state, El Dorado’s Murphy Arts District hopes for similar results. MAD had its opening weekend last month, with music by Brad Paisley, Natasha Bedingfield, Train, X Ambassadors, ZZ Top, Ludacris, Migos and Smokey Robinson in various venues.

“The purpose of this project was to influence and improve the economic vitality of greater El Dorado and that translates into more people coming in to visit El Dorado, to obviously hear our acts, watch our performances, eat at our restaurants, but ultimately that they would also shop in El Dorado and stay in El Dorado so that they would have a hotel night, they would buy a pair of shoes somewhere, that they would buy a pair of sunglasses somewhere, that they would eat in other people’s restaurants and those things would help pay for people’s jobs and obviously add to the tax base for the city, which is good for fire departments and police departments,” says spokesman Bob Tarren.

It’s too soon to see much concrete evidence of how the arts district is affecting the area’s economy, but anecdotal information seems to indicate some success.

“One thing we can point to is that prior to us announcing what we were doing in June was getting one to two calls a month from companies of all stripes inquiring about general feasibility, availability of space – just general inquiries that a chamber would get. They are now getting four to five inquiries per week and feel like several of them are very serious, from national firms,” says Tarren. “I can’t speak about what those are yet because they are confidential but some businesses are poised, some businesses are very seriously talking and some businesses that wanted to move into the historic downtown area are finding that there is no availability so they are a little stymied, waiting for something to open up or looking at different places.”

The Arkansas Delta is getting in on the arts and economic action as well. In Helena-West Helena, the Helena Little Theater, the Warfield Concert Series, the Helena Museum, Freedom Park, Fort Curtis, and the Delta Cultural Center are drawing tourists.

Cathy Cunningham, chairman of the Helena-West Helena Advertising and Promotion Commission, says it’s challenging to pin down a precise dollar value.

“The latest numbers that we can pull with any accuracy show a 7 percent increase in visitors 2016 over 2015,” says Cunningham. “This is measured at various venues that have counters at the gate or door.”

Alana Pinchback, the commission’s director of communications, lived in Helena in the 1990s, left for a while and returned because of all the city has to offer. Her husband Keith Pinchback is chancellor of the Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas.

“We’re able to get people from Mississippi and Tennessee who come to see the concerts, especially if we have a special genre,” she says. “Some will come for the ‘80s music, and some will come for ballet or the many other things. It really does bring a lot to our town. When your town is low-crime, great schools, you start to take things for granted, but in a town like Helena people are fighting tooth and nail to keep it as wonderful as it is.”

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