March 5 2009 12:00 AM

Cities, state and MSU partner to explore opportunities for the arts

Despite Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s proposed elimination of state operating funds for arts organizations beginning in July, a collaborative project is underway to help grow mid-Michigan’s arts and culture as an important piece of the local economy.

For the next five months, a consulting firm will assess the value of the area’s arts and culture offerings and opportunities to develop a collaborative economic development plan. The $65,000 project is a joint effort between the Lansing Economic Development Corp., East Lansing, Michigan State University, Michigan State Housing Development Authority and Michigan’s History, Arts & Libraries Department.

Marchelle C. Smith, special projects director for the Lansing Economic Development Corp., said between now and mid-summer, Creative Community Builders, a consulting firm in Minneapolis, will assess the region’s cultural assets, compiling data and conducting interviews and visual audits. A final presentation and strategic plan is expected by the end of July. “We see arts and culture as a huge economic engine in communities today,” Smith said. “Both cities have a large amount of cultural entities to draw from.”

Carol Trosper, deputy director in the Michigan Office of Cultural Development, a division of HAL, said the project is meant to identify opportunities for arts and culturally based businesses in the area.

As one example, she said vacant buildings in the right locations could be turned into incubator offices for small designoriented ventures, such as interior design or architecture firms. Another use could be live/work space for artists, and another could be to convert the property into a mixed-use building where people could open niche retail stores and art supply shops. Trosper cited Lansing’s Delphi Glass and Elderly Instruments as examples of successful businesses that supply cultural commodities.

“The idea is to unite the cities’ revitalization efforts around their cultural economic development opportunities,” Trosper said.

While the governor has called for the elimination of HAL, Trosper and Smith said they don’t expect it to affect on the project.

Lori Mullins, senior project manager in East Lansing’s Planning and Community Development Department, said it makes sense to think of the two cities as one unit for this kind of project. “When residents or businesses come to this area, they’re looking at the entire region and what that has to offer them and their employees, so all of us really benefit from having a strong regional arts and culture scene,” Mullins said.

One goal of the project is to offer local data to back up the economic importance of the arts and culture sector in Greater Lansing. Local arts organizations touting the economic benefits and quality of life they bring to their neighborhood, city and region often resort to national averages, but the study should offer hard, as well as anecdotal evidence of the impact such organizations have locally.

“We hope that the plan will look at our many arts and cultural resources and think about ways to support those resources, so they can reach their full potential as economic drivers,” Mullins said. “I’m hoping the consultants will provide some guidelines that would help our community leaders support those organizations so they can grow.”

Mullins said she also hoped the study would reveal ways “arts and cultural assets” could work better together or potentially grow in ways that haven’t been explored.

But doesn’t it seem strange to explore the potential for growth in a sector that stands to lose most of its state funding?

“I think that makes this type of planning effort more important than ever, because what it will do is highlight the value of the arts and cultural community to our local economy,” Mullins said. “We really do have a really strong arts and culture community here, and I think that this process will help highlight that and bind some of those groups together to work through what could be hard times.”