Lawrence ponders artists' economic potential

Here's a short list of items in Lawrence's economic development toolbox: Industrial parks, tax abatements, street musicians.

Think that last item sounds far-fetched? Maybe not.

A new book by Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida says a city's "creative class" may be one of the most important factors in its economic vitality.

Cities that don't understand that, he wrote in May's issue of The Washington Monthly, have "lost members of the creative class, and their economic dynamism, to places like Austin, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Seattle � places more tolerant, diverse, and open to creativity."

Members of Florida's creative class include writers, painters and university researchers. He says such people "prefer indigenous street-level culture � a teeming blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians and small galleries and bistros."

All of which sounds an awful lot like Massachusetts Street on a Saturday afternoon.

"In a town like Lawrence, you can't swing a dead cat around your head without whacking an artist or a poet or a musician," said Jeff Ridgway, a Lawrence artist and chairman of the Lawrence Arts Commission.

He's a bit cynical, though, about the economic development potential of Lawrence's creative community.

"How ironic. The people who make the least amount of money draw the rich people to town," Ridgway said. "I would think the chief benefit would be having a ready supply of cheap manual labor, since most artists can't support themselves just with their art."

Up the road in Missouri, though, the towns that make up the Provenance Project are seeing results from their decision to attract creative types. Hannibal, Louisiana and Clarksville are offering tax breaks and other financial incentives for artists to locate there, creating what the Associated Press calls " a trendy, cultured boost to the economy."

"That kind of thing is not new," said Judy Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's happening in pockets all over the country."

But it would seem like Lawrence already has a head start in this area.

"We do and we don't," Billings said. "We have the artists' product and we have a cultural tourism plan; now we need the heritage part."

Billings is part of a committee seeking Lawrence's designation as a National Heritage Area from the city's "Bleeding Kansas" days. Such a designation, she said, would give the city an umbrella to cover all sorts of "cultural tourism."

It produces other economic benefits, as well.

"We were at a conference," Billings said, "and they told us the heritage areas won't just attract companies to pay for historic projects. They also attract companies to (locate)."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.