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Investing in culture
Improving cultural infrastructure will be crucial to Savannah's future
Caribou performs at Asheville's MoogFest, a celebration of electronic music

Looking back on 2010, Savannah is coming off one of its most vibrant years, culturally speaking, in recent memory. Numerous times over the past 12 months I’ve found myself having conversations about the busy nature of the city’s events calendar.

The Savannah Film Festival, Picnic in the Park, the Jazz Festival, and myriad theater productions, film screenings, art openings and live music events have all had fantastic support from attendees and made this year exhausting (in the best possible sense).

With our success comes another challenge; not to rest on the laurels of our accomplishments, but to push farther and improve what has been developing. It will be an important component to our economic recovery.

Patrons of the arts visit local businesses and eat at restaurants; visitors from out of town stay in hotels and take tours. One of the bright spots in the otherwise bleak City budget meetings last month was the discovery that the average spending per visitor is up significantly from the previous year.

The Cultural Affairs Commission designates funding specifically for this type of economic driver under the heading of “cultural tourism” – attracting visitors to the city using bait like the Savannah Music Festival, for example.

Savannah’s leadership should be commended for their ongoing funding of the arts, even during hard economic times. They are certainly doing better than their counterparts at the state level.

Although Georgia ranks 4th in the nation in residents per capita employed by creative industries (more than 88,000 people at 17,600 companies statewide), the state ranks 47th in per capita funding for the arts.

The failure to support the arts at the state level is certainly not representative of their economic significance.

The dollars generated in Georgia from cultural groups is conservatively estimated to be $387 million per year (with $18.6 million in tax revenue) according to a study released by the Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition earlier this year.

“The arts and cultural industries provide jobs, attract investments, and stimulate local economies through tourism, consumer purchases and tax revenue,” echoes a recent report by the National Governors Association (NGA) about the economic significance of the arts. The report failed to land on Sonny Perdue’s desk, or went unread.

Georgia didn’t receive a single mention in the report. When it comes to the arts, we’re spending half to a third per capita in comparison to states like South Carolina and Arkansas.

That lack of investment will leave us at a disadvantage in the long term. In same way we compete with other cities to attract businesses, we compete with them for cultural tourism dollars. With many pockets still pinched by the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the competition for cultural tourists will only get tougher.

While Savannah has many natural advantages – the walkability of downtown, historic beauty, and the open container law, among them – we are far from having won the war. If we are going to stay competitive we will have to invest wisely, take a few risks, and further develop our infrastructure.

Keeping up with the Joneses

One area we have yet to capitalize on is anything resembling the new vein of immersive multi–day music festivals that have grown dramatically in popularity around the U.S. over the past few years. Bonnaroo is a good example, but there are new ones sprouting up all over the Southeast.

In October, thousands of people gathered at a venue known as the Masquerade in Atlanta for a three–day, homegrown hip hop festival called A3C. The venue is a former mill that’s been converted into a massive multi–purpose space, which featured five stages (two outside and three indoors) presenting a rotation of more than 200 acts that ranged from unknowns to legends.

There were a surprising number of current and former Savannahians in attendance – some to see music and others to perform.

Only a couple years old, the festival has seen impressive growth, and this was the first year that the event took place in one complex rather than scattered across a series of smaller venues. It has reached a point where it draws attendees (and sponsorship dollars) from across the country.

Over Halloween weekend, MoogFest debuted in Asheville, NC. The three–day event, a collaboration between the Moog Foundation and AC Entertainment (who were also responsible for creating Bonnaroo), featured dozens of acts that all fit under the umbrella of electronic music.

While Bob Moog was still alive, a similarly themed but much smaller event was held in New York City. The new incarnation was shifted to Asheville (Moog’s adopted hometown) because of the atmosphere the city offers.

“It’s harder to create a destination event in New York,” explains Ashley Capps, President of AC Entertainment. “It was also very supportive setting for the festival because everybody who came had a sense of common purpose and shared experience.”

The event drew 8,000 attendees per day, with about half of them coming from beyond Asheville, including many from far flung places like Australia, Europe and South America.

As crowds moved through the streets from event to event there was an energy that is hard to describe – but it stems from a mix of common purpose and excitement. That feeling permeated downtown Asheville for a couple days, and was mentioned glowingly by both attendees and performers alike.

“What the infrastructure is all about is walkability,” says Capps. “Being able to walk in a reasonable amount of time to all the venues is a critical ingredient of creating the kind of synergies we’re looking to create for a successful event.”

Sound familiar? Most of the weekend was spent bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t carry a to–go cup with me.

While the Savannah Music Festival brings in an impressive array of talent, because its schedule is so spread out, that same energy, having dozens of shows compacted into a non–stop frenzy of music, isn’t there. That’s not a knock against the Music Festival – it’s a completely different type of event with a completely different audience. The SMF is not drawing thousands of young people into town for the weekend, even if it does draw its fair share of visitors.

Another striking difference: Both of the aforementioned festivals were all–ages shows, despite the fact that alcohol was served. There were few, if any, signs of rampant delinquency. Both cities seem to be developing a crop of young people who will support music and other events for decades to come.

I don’t raise these issues to complain, but hopefully to provoke some thought on the subject.

For example, the Savannah Civic Center held fewer ticketed entertainment events than expected in 2010. Ticket sales and attendance were also lower than expected.

Some of that could be a result of the economy – big ticket events are likely the first things cut from tightened family budgets – but another reason might be that of the total events held (including ticketed entertainment and events like conferences) 85 percent were reported to be returning events.

That doesn’t say much for innovation, or new experiences – that means we’re comfortable seeing a couple of things, but we might be growing tired of some of them.

Could the gun show be twice a year instead of quarterly?

Keeping priorities

If arts and culture is something important, then we need to ensure that it continues to be part of city life, and as we stand on the precipice of major decisions about arena location and cultural arts facilities, those long term decisions need to be made with an eye toward maintaining a competitive edge against other cities in the region over the long term.

If the downtown is what is attracting people to visit Savannah from around the world, then the new civic center should stay somewhere within walking distance of downtown.

Second, the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridor needs a different kind of anchor if it’s going to succeed in the long term, and that should be the proposed cultural center. Without an evening attraction in the vicinity, the bars, restaurants and coffee shops that open there will always fight an uphill battle to succeed.

If the Hall Street location isn’t economically viable, then it should be the location at Oglethorpe and MLK that gets the green light.

Nightlife and culture made West Broad what it once was, and it only seems right that it should be those things which help resuscitate the corridor. It should be those things that continue to sustain Savannah as a whole for years to come as well. Our future depends on it.