Monday, April 30, 2007

Arts as an Economic Development Tool

“This area was full of crack houses and prostitution. It was one of the oldest parts of town and also the most run down. My boss, Tom Barnett, who is director of planning for the city, and Mark Barone, a local artist, got together and convinced the city to try to turn this part of town into an artist’s colony.” Renee Nunez, the head of Paducah, KY’s Artist Relocation Program was explaining to me how in only six years Paducah (population 26,307) was able to turn an abandoned part of town into a bustling, model of urban renewal.

She went on, “The city started to strictly enforce building codes and began buying up some of the worst buildings. They worked out a plan with a local bank and started marketing to artists as a location that was affordable. They thought that initially they might be able to get five or ten to relocate to Paducah. In only six years we’ve gotten in over 70 from 15 states. It has been wildly more successful than anyone imagined.”

As Renee walked me around the neighborhood, I was shocked at the transformation. We stopped in a half dozen studios and saw incredible before and after photos of the transformation in the area.

Our first stop was at the studio of Deb Lyons who moved from Chicago in 2005 into a home built in 1886 that had been converted into a four unit apartment complex. It was on the city’s demolition list when she bought it for $1, contingent upon her having the building redone within 18 months. She and her husband were early retirees, looking for a new career in art. She was an art professor and he was a submarine chief.

Mark Palmer was the fifth artist to make the leap in 2002. He moved from Washington, DC from a career in hotels, always living in large cities. He told me, “My Dad always told me, ‘You are going to get three big chances in your life. Be sure you take them.’ This was one of my three and I’ve never regretted it. It has been much better than I ever thought.”

Deb and Mark’s comments were what I heard from other artists in the area. Paducah is having their fifth annual artist’s festival May 25 to 27th. In addition to the 70+ local artists there will be an additional 40 juried artists, 10 bands and 12 restaurants at the event. According to Renee, over 13,000 people attended last year’s event. I hope to get back for this year’s festival.

No comments: