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Cultural Economic Development

By Colleen Layton

If someone told you that for every $1.00 invested in your community you could get a return of $8.00, would you want to know where to sign up? If you were asked to name some of the top economic engines that will propel your community in the next 50 years, would arts and culture be one of your choices? It should be.

Make no mistake. One of the primary ways that we are going to create 21st century vibrant places where people want to live, work and play is through arts and culture. Capitalizing on a community’s heritage and cultural distinctiveness creates unique places where people want to live.

The Center for 21st Century Communities

Investing in communities is an important element of any long-term economic development strategy. Research continues to show that “place” matters more than ever. The League hosted a public policy series to inform and inspire a different way of thinking as we provide a blueprint for moving our communities forward in a new and creative direction. Through these forums, research, and education, we identified eight essential assets necessary for communities to be vibrant places for the next 50 years. These eight assets will serve as the focus for the Center.

Eight Core Assets

1. Physical Design & Walkability
Whether your community is big or small, it is important to create a physical fabric that promotes social connections where people can live, work, shop and play.

2. Green Initiatives
“Thinking green” is a critical asset of any viable community. It impacts natural resources, quality of life, and the financial bottom line.

3. Cultural Economic Development
Arts and culture should be a part of any long-term economic development strategy for sustainability. CED plays a big role in developing and preserving a community’s identity and uniqueness.

4. Entrepreneurship
In the new economy, we need to focus on growing jobs in our communities by ones and twos for long-term sustainability.

5. Diversity/Multiculturalism
Our global economy is fueled by the talent and ingenuity of people from around the world. Welcoming those from different backgrounds and disciplines can result in a whole new level of innovation.

6. Messaging & Technology
Technology allows people to connect and collaborate like never before. Communities have a powerful opportunity to connect and engage with their citizenry and beyond.

7. Transit
People are choosing where they want to live, play and work in communities that embrace all modes of transportation—walking, biking and public transit.

8. Education (K-16)
Our educational institutions are key to growing a knowledge-based state. Leveraging these institutional resources is critical.

Local officials play a primary role in setting policies that can help to achieve community sustainability and improve quality of life as it relates to creating attractive places. The League established the Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3) to assist local officials in identifying, developing, and implementing programs and strategies that will enhance the state’s communities as vibrant places for the 21st century. Through the Center, the League will provide a wide range of services, including technical services, educational programming, a resource clearinghouse, a speaker and expert bureau, and other related special projects (see text box).

Identified as one of the key critical assets of 21c3, arts and culture can provide the economic boost that turns your community into a sustainable, dynamic community. Big or small, it doesn’t matter, every community and region has something to highlight. If you’re scratching your head, read about Cedar Springs who became the Red Flannel capital of the world!

Think about it. If you were describing to someone why you like where you live, what would be some of the first things that come to your mind? Ann Arbor has been my home for a lot of years now, long enough to reminisce about lost favorite restaurants, vanished retail stores on Main Street and small specialty stores that have come and gone. Although it is a city with a world-class university with all the unique opportunities that a higher educational institution can bring, it often has the look and feel of a small town. But, when I tell people about the place I call home, the first thing that comes to my mind is the quality of life. It offers numerous beautiful parks and has a great walkable downtown, but more importantly, it has year round cultural events that give Ann Arbor a distinctive reputation. Most notably, the Summer Festival and the summer Art Fairs have made this city a destination for years, and the multitude of smaller art and musical events and street fairs and festivals add to the local flavor.

Cultural Economic Development
Cultural Economic Development (CED), as defined by the state department of History, Arts and Libraries, means leveraging our creative talent and cultural assets to spur economic growth and community prosperity. Cultural planning should be a part of any long-term economic development planning and

regional collaboration and partnerships should be a part of any strategy. Grassroots connections should be used that include a broad range of business partners including Convention & Visitor Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, business associations, banks, service clubs, local businesses, community foundations and other communities. Although the economy is suffering, this is not the time to pull back. This is the time to think more creatively, to come up with ideas you never would have dreamed of years ago. Encourage and support your local artists who provide an entrepreneurial spirit that can result in sustainable businesses. Arts and culture, like any solid economic development tool, is for the long-term benefits.

Measuring Success
These economic benefits can be easily measured through event admissions, sales of items associated with program activities and increases in retail of local products and services as well. Arts and cultural events produce direct economic benefits—jobs, a stronger tax base, downtown and neighborhood revitalization, and tourism. Its emphasis on creativity, knowledge and innovation are essential elements in attracting and retaining people and businesses vital to Michigan’s re-emergence in a 21st century knowledge-based economy.

Michigan has a rich cultural history and the possibilities to leverage what is unique to our state are endless. No community or region is without a story to tell, so make sure you tell yours.

For more information on the Center for 21st Century Communities (21c3) and cultural economic development in particular, please visit our website at


Colleen Layton is director of Information and Policy Research for the League. You may reach her at 734-669-6320 or



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