Art as An Economic Mobilizer in the Carolinas

Arts and culture have become widely accepted instruments for economic development and revitalization. Coming into public consciousness perhaps most recognizably in the work of Richard Florida and his theories of building, or rebuilding, a city around the creative class. Nebulous as they are, arts and culture are the protean intangibles in many urban planning projects, sought after to attract well-educated, mobile citizens.

Interior of Shelby’s Earl Scruggs Center, formerly the Cleveland County Courthouse. Photo Credit: Adam Levin

One form of arts and culture-based economic development which has found favor is the repurposing or development of previously unused physical space or dilapidated real estate for use as a creative and revenue-generating facility. Big cities have unsurprisingly led the charge in these endeavors, using their relatively deep pockets and large planning departments to implement creative revitalization projects in long-disadvantaged neighborhoods. The goals of these projects will be familiar to economic development practitioners and revitalization gurus; they include increased tourism, new square footage of mixed-use development and new independent businesses.

Exterior of Shelby’s Earl Scruggs Center, formerly the Cleveland County Courthouse. Photo Credit: Adam Levin

But while large metropolises may be at the forefront of these projects, they are not the only cities investing in arts and culture. Smaller cities have also shown interest in arts and culture-based revitalization projects. Implementation, though, can be difficult for these cities. Their unique challenges include spurring innovative economic development with limited budgets and staff and working with practitioners and citizens who may chafe at unproven ideas.

Shelby’s Don Gibson Theatre. Photo Credit: Adam Levin

Three cities in the Carolinas are up to the challenge. Shelby and Wilson, both in North Carolina, and Newberry, South Carolina, are in various stages of arts and culture-based economic development initiatives. All former textile or tobacco towns, each city prospered until around the mid-20th century, subsequently falling on harder times as manufacturing declined in the South. In the 1990s Newberry turned to its historic, long-dormant downtown opera house to attract tourists. Shelby created two downtown attractions, the Don Gibson Theatre (opened 2009) and the Earl Scruggs Center (opened January 2014), commemorating seminal musicians with roots in the town. Wilson is in the process of opening the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park on a two-acre downtown lot, where it will display structures created by Simpson, the iconoclastic artist who lived in Wilson nearly his entire life before passing away in 2013.

Vollis Simpson whirligig at the Preservation Center in Wilson, NC. Photo Credit: Adam Levin

The results are encouraging. The Newberry Opera House attracts around 100,000 theatregoers annually. Shelby experienced growth in downtown business starts since its projects began, while Wilson has recently seen the first mixed-use development in its downtown’s history. Harder to quantify, officials in each town report an ineffable momentum not felt for decades. 

Interior of the Preservation Center. Photo Credit: Adam Levin

How do we overcome the unique challenges of small town creative economic development? First, each project was authentic to the town and resonated with residents. Rather than an imported, impersonal project, there were clear connections to town history in each case. Second, each project had a prominent local private citizen as a driving force. The social capital they brought was critical in countering skepticism to these nontraditional economic development strategies.

Warren St. in Downtown Shelby. Photo Credit: Adam Levin

About the Author: Adam Levin is a 2015 master’s graduate of the University of North Carolina’s Department of City and Regional Planning, where he concentrated in economic development and contributed to the 2014 and 2015 volumes of the Carolina Planning Journal. He currently lives and works in the Washington, DC region.

Featured Image: Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson as of January 2015. Photo Credit: Adam Levin