Want to save a rural town? The arts may hold the key

click to enlarge Downtown Lewiston was built using Legos in the exhibit "Rethink Downtown," on display at the LCSC Center for Arts & History. The exhibit is part of work to create a master plan for the future of the district.
Downtown Lewiston was built using Legos in the exhibit "Rethink Downtown," on display at the LCSC Center for Arts & History. The exhibit is part of work to create a master plan for the future of the district.

Across the United States, rural towns are hemorrhaging young people. To make things worse, many of these communities can’t attract new people, and they offer tourists few reasons to visit.

These are the biggest challenges facing remote small and mid-sized communities, but there’s a solution available to all — the arts.

That is the message of Jay Dick, a senior director at Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit organization with a bank of research about the economic and civic impacts arts investments can have on rural communities. He’ll speak at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5 at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History.

Dick has yet to meet an elected official who said, “I hate the arts.” He has met many who don’t understand the value of funding the arts.

One reason for this is when the general public hears “arts,” they think of the elite, Dick said. They also think of traditional arts: theater, dance, art galleries, an old lady at the opera with a monocle — you get the idea. In today’s creative economy, the definition of arts is much broader.

In the creative economy we don’t produce as much physical stuff, but we still design and create everything, Dick said. For example, video game design is an industry of tremendous growth. In today’s economy, the arts are about fostering creativity and innovation so people can create something from nothing.

“The arts are really economic development, jobs, small businesses, arts incubators. It’s those things that are really going to have an outsized impact on the local economy of a small town,” he said. “We’re using the arts not to create an army of artists, but an army of creative employees and employers.”

Millennials want to live where they can work and play all in one place, Dick said. “They want a good job, a strong internet connection and cultural activities for them to do.”

Lewiston’s traditional industries have involved timber and ammunition. Dick said the question is, “how do you transform that economy without getting rid of the past but in a way that attracts these new vibrant people?”

Remote towns like Lewiston must decide what they want to be known for, he said.

“People want to live in places where there are cool things to do.”

This logic extends to attracting cultural tourists who Dick defines as: “people traveling for the sole purpose of seeing something unique to them.”

In order to attract these people, Lewiston must set itself apart from other nearby communities.

“People are not traveling to stay in a hotel,” he said. “They are traveling for a unique, authentic experience.”

On average, cultural tourists spends $34, in addition to admission prices, at their destination, he said. This money is spent on things like food at restaurants and souvenirs and goes directly into the local economy.

Dick’s visit is in conjunction with Beautiful Downtown Lewiston’s work to develop a Cultural District Plan as part of the larger Lewiston Downtown Master Plan initiative. His visit was funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“This conversation is about what is going to make Lewiston thrive in 2050,” he said.

WHO: Jay Dick, “The Economic and Civil Impact of Arts and Culture”

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5

WHERE: Lewis-Clark State College, Center for Arts & History, 415 Main St., Lewiston

COST: Free


What do you think would make Lewiston a better place to live? What should Lewiston promote or build to attract more tourists?

Email or text your thoughts to editor@inland360.com or comment below.

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