Many rural communities face a dilemma: encouraging economic growth while maintaining the unique quality of life offered by small towns. This growth requires an infusion of dollars, as well as thinking about economic development in nontraditional ways. It also requires understanding the role of arts and culture in achieving healthy local economies.
With support from a Local Government Challenge Grant, the Gene Autry Film Festival almost doubles the sales tax revenue for this small town. (Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Arts Council)
In Oklahoma, towns like Buffalo (pop. 1,350) and Gene Autry (pop. 99) are often overlooked by economic development strategies that base investment solely on market principles. Such an approach would conclude that these two places don't have enough critical mass to sustain or attract new business or industry.
However, these communities remain viable and healthy. It is this underlying strength that the Oklahoma Arts Council's Local Government Challenge Grant (LGCG) program seeks to encourage through matching grants that require a community to invest in itself. The LGCG program supports projects that reflect the way people live, engaging them in determining an approach based on their community's needs and resources.
Gene Autry is a barely visible dot on the map of south central Oklahoma. The town, named for the cowboy singer and movie star, received a $5,000 grant from the arts council in 2001 to support a film and music festival. This tiny community had to match the award with a scarce commodity -- local tax dollars. Says arts council deputy director Suzanne Tate, "Committing tax dollars for the arts is a huge risk for local elected officials who have probably never thought about the arts, much less how important they are to the community." In the case of this town, the results are obvious to Elvin Sweeten, town treasurer and clerk. "The festival brings in a lot of money," he observes. "It helps the economy as far as sales tax, and the town's income for the month of the festival alone was nearly $1,900....We basically double revenue from sales tax."
Turning Cultural Capital into Revenue
Gene Autry's success prompted it to reapply for another round of funding in 2002. In fact, 80 percent of the cities and towns that applied for funds when the program started in 1999 participated in the program in each of the last four years. This is one yardstick for measuring the commitment of local communities to investing tax dollars in the arts. It also demonstrates that some local decision makers are willing to think creatively and show leadership in determining what kind of life their citizens deserve.
A Local Government Challenge Grant spurred the town of Holdenville to create a series of murals and renovate an art center. Holdenville won a SmART Business Academy Award based on the amount of tax revenues it invested in the project. (Photo by Bliss Butler, Oklahoma Arts Council)
Georgia Williams, the arts council's outreach director, travels to small towns all over the state to talk about the Local Government Challenge Grant program and other opportunities. Through this outreach, the arts council helps raise awareness of the program and, in some cases, it has succeeded in enlisting legislators in helping motivate communities to apply.
The reluctance of a town or city to participate is often tied to the fact that they don't recognize the value of their own resources or how to turn cultural capital into revenue. This wasn't the case for Guthrie, which lost its preeminence as the state capital to Oklahoma City in a midnight raid in 1910.
Despite this sudden loss of economic vitality, the town's 2,169 buildings became its greatest asset enabling the city to be designated a National Historic Landmark. City leaders use this designation to position the town as a cultural center, and its participation in the LGCG program enabled it to purchase sculpting stands, potters' wheels and other supplies for the Community Arts Center. "Over the past twenty years, Guthrie has worked hard to transform itself into a cultural center and tourist destination," says Melody Kellog, the town's special projects coordinator. "The arts industry is growing and the Community Arts Center is just one avenue for local artists to share their talent."
By fostering microenterprise, the challenge grant program helps make community life richer and more self-sufficient. This approach has won the arts council recognition from the Oklahoma Academy for State Goals, a private, nonpartisan membership organization that identifies critical issues affecting the state's future. Eleven communities in the LGCG program recently received SmART Business Academy Awards during a forum entitled SmART Business: Revitalizing Communities through the Arts.
"Local Government Challenge Grants have successfully created a working relationship between the arts community and local government officials, particularly in rural Oklahoma," says Betty Price, executive director of the arts council. "So often, the arts people never interact with the politicians. Now they see that a partnership between the two, with dollars attached, can reap benefits far beyond what can be achieved alone."
Year Started: 1999
Number of Participating Communities: 35
Total Investment to Date: $394,000 (includes $40,000 in Challenge America funds)