By Mickey Howley
A current buzz in Main Street economic circles centers around arts and entertainment districts in downtowns. By grouping like businesses together—at least businesses in entertainment, dining, visual and performing arts—there is a synergistic effect such that all benefit greater than they normally would if they were separated.
Now you might think a place has to be a cosmopolitan mecca like New York or San Francisco to support concentrated numbers of A&E businesses. It works even in a small town, the best local example of that is Como, which is a town, the size of Coffeeville that has three fine restaurants. The population of Como is not nearly enough to support these businesses. Most of the customers come from well outside Como; even on a weeknight you’ll notice cars from a five county area. That’s real drawing power and it is so because people know there is not just one “establishment” to dine at. So a trip there guarantees variety. And because the businesses there compete, there is also a quality advantage.
So this clustering works well for the customer in variety and quality and for the businesses in compounding the drawing power to the area. Ask yourself how many times you were just heading to Oxford without a specific destination other than to the “Square.” You know if you get there and one place looks too full, there are eight or nine others on the Square or right off it. That’s the power of a district even if it is not named so. It draws people. And people want to be where other people are.
Some towns, and not huge ones—towns like Paducah, Kentucky and Eureka Springs, Arkansas— have taken sections of their downtown districts and designated them Arts and Entertainment zones. This doesn’t stop other businesses from being there or prevent A&E businesses from locating elsewhere in a town, but like locating a manufacturing business in an industrial park there are advantages. Usually the local and state government will offer some small incentives in terms of tax credits or deductions to qualifying businesses. Think that is strange? Well, it is done all the time by local and state government for manufacturing and industrial jobs.
Recent studies have shown there is strong connection to economic development and the arts beyond the assumed allure of high ceilings, large windows, and cheap rents. Creative economy businesses are catalyst for other economic sectors. It is not simple as it sounds, making a district requires, time, economic motivation, community desire and will, and much planning even before zoning and regulation get started. But for the towns that have made the effort the payoff is exponential and long term.
This coming Saturday night at 7 pm in Bozarts there will be another rendition of the Trobar Ric Traveling Poets. Reading are four extraordinary women poets from South Carolina, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Mississippi. Ole Miss professor Tim Earley along with Sallie Anglin organizes this series and Tim says the poets especially love the Water Valley stop.