July 1 2009 12:00 AM

Public weighs in on cultural assets, barriers in region


It felt like a classroom. Gathered together in the Governor’s Room in the Lansing Center, seven groups of art and culture advocates scrambled to narrow down what they thought were three cultural assets to the Lansing area and three barriers to reviving the region’s art scene on their large Post-it notepads. Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Development Corp., walked about to the room’s raised hands to answer questions.

In group six, Pat Carolan, of the Land Policy Institute, frantically took notes against a background of suggestions flowing from the mouths of more than 50 people around him, including fellow group member and artist Deena Hodson.
"I think the problem is that Lansing, East Lansing and Old Town are fragmented," Hodson said. "I think if they could make it be more cohesive so it would flow better maybe you would get people interacting more in the arts community."

The pseudo-classroom was part of the third stage — community input — in a three-step process to develop a cultural economic development plan. The plan is a collaborative project sponsored by the cities of Lansing and East Lansing, Michigan State University, the state Department of History, Arts and Libraries and the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.

At Monday night’s public meeting, participants received an overview of the planning process and an opportunity to share ideas about how to stimulate the local economy by growing the region’s arts and culture sector. "This is not an easy time to have a discussion about the arts and culture," Trezise said. "But really, what more important time could there be than ever to have this discussion but right now?"

Before cutting loose to let the audience brainstorm, Trezise and other members of the committee acknowledged their efforts as a three-step process that included defining the plan, unveiling what research the team had uncovered and asking for community input.

"The plan goes to the root of most communities," said Craig Dreeszen, a consultant with Creative Community Builders, a Minneapolis consulting firm working on the project. "It’s about people and their creativities and skills; traditions and culture and how they are able to create things, things that generate revenue [and] bring and keep dollars in a community. I think more and more ideas are currency of the world, thus the creative economy."

Dreeszen said the goal of the project, which began in May, is to identify what is important to Lansing residents culturally, what barriers are present and how to build on the creative economy. "We’re looking at what parts of the sector are moving forward and what’s holding us back, as we think about the whole sector as an integrated system," Dreeszen said.

With about half of the research done, consultant Eric Takeshita said the committee has reached several conclusions already. Although the general economy is slumping, the creative sector seems to be growing. Takeshita said research shows employment in the Lansing area economy is down by more than 3 percent, but the creative sector’s employment is up by more than 4 percent. "We feel like there is some real positive momentum that’s happening in the creative sector, some things to build on and some opportunities to be had," Takeshita said.

The committee aims to examine partnerships across economic sectors and agencies, as well as support for entrepreneurship and fostering creativity with young people.

Through meetings like this, as well as focus groups and surveys, the consultants are gathering information on what Lansing-area residents value, including arts institutions, creative businesses, festivals and the region’s unique geographic features.

This reporter’s group placed an emphasis on higher education, leisure activities and the diversity of the population in the creative sector.

Among the identified obstacles to creating a thriving cultural economy were a lack of information and marketing, negative attitudes, cultural facilities and unreliable public transportation.

The assets and the barriers are all part of four broad categories of opportunity: quality of life/sense of place, creative workforce development, leadership and coordination and support.

The project is scheduled to be complete in September. Core members of the committee, like Marchelle Smith, of the LEDC, and Lori Mullins, of the City of East Lansing, have faith in the soonto-be-finished plan. "We really hope that the plan that comes out of this process is a plan you can all believe in and stand behind, and that we can work together and really improve our economy through the arts and culture," Mullins said.