Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Investing in beauty

Current Issue: Artvoice v7n51, week of Thursday December 17 » back issues

A Bright Future?
by Bruce Fisher

How to seed hope as the trends stay sour: dedicated funding for parks and culturals

If you know anybody who is still rich, please let them know that I’d like that person to endow a new award for the thinker whose book, article, or speech contains the year’s most elegant proof of the obvious.

My nomination for the 2008 Obvie is a dynamic duo, Gerald Carlino and Albert Saiz. One works for the Federal Reserve and one works for the Univeristy of Pennsylvania. Together they wrote a paper full of the most difficult-looking mathematics you’ll ever see, in which they prove the daring hypothesis that every reader of this newspaper already takes as true anyway: that making cities beautiful and fun results in more people wanting to live in them.

“Cities around the world (such as Barcelona and Bilbao in Spain; Glasgow in Scotland; and in the U.S., Oklahoma City, OK; Camden, NJ; and San Antonio, TX) have attempted to leverage public investments in leisure spaces and beautification to spur demographic change and economic development,” wrote Carlino and Saiz.

“Do these natural or man-made differences in leisure activities really matter for urban economic development?” they asked. Their answer: (drumroll please, let the suspense build…): YES! Culture and parks and entertainment work.

(You can find the report at

Here’s what that means here and now, and for the next many years: This community needs a reliable source of funding to sustain “public investments in leisure spaces and beautification.” Notwithstanding the many studies that have found that public investment must be part of the mix, and notwithstanding a very large participation—as board members, as funders, as customers and as fans of these community assets—our community does not have a permanent source of funding for arts, parks, libraries and attractive public spaces. We need one.

Here’s what the economists say happens when those investments are made and made well and on large scale:

In Bilbao, Spain, the government and local leaders enticed and invested in a huge new Guggenheim art museum. Bilbao is in Basque country, which has had a worldwide reputation for terrorism and mayhem. The advent of the art museum seems to have helped Bilbao rebrand itself. Police work ended the criminal conspiracy that sustained the terrorism.

In Glasgow, Scotland, the government and local leaders invested in a broad cultural enterprise that has actually driven a new economy. The expert on this transformation is none other than Eddie Friel, who now teaches tourism at Niagara University. He was the principal engineer of a world-class arts, music, theater, and cultural product that turned gritty Glasgow into a World Heritage site, a major site of festivals, and a tourism magnet for the British, mainly, but also a re-branding opportunity for a very badly deindustrialized urban region.

In Oklahoma City, the government and its university made a world-class rowing facility out of what had been a channelized stream. I don’t really care about anything else they do there, but the rowing is supposed to be fabulous.

So the evidence here and abroad is confirmed: If a troubled city/region creates a distinctive world-class attraction, good things happen. We now not only have the evidence of all the chambers of commerce; we now have an academic paper whose highly credible authors observe that cities grow best if there’s a reason for talented people to come and live there.

So now, thanks to the preservationists who saved the Commercial Slip and the historic street pattern of the old Erie Canal Harbor district, and thanks as well to a government commitment for infrastructure, the community has the beginnings of a distinctive new place that could help with a very tough project—namely, reversing the decline of Western New York.

The Canal Side project is not a Guggenheim museum, like Bilbao got. It’s not a world-class cultural heritage site that will draw attention from around the planet. Positive? Absolutely. Cross the ocean to go there? Not likely, unless another marquee attraction arrives that is something other than a big store that is of declining cultural relevance to the Great Lakes. The lesson of Bilbao, Glasgow, Oklahoma City, and the other places the authors cite is how widespread the popular endorsement of so-called elite culture is, and how economically powerful it works out to be.

Let us not, however, allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. If the new Burchfield-Penney Gallery, plus Canal Side, plus all the recently restored and refreshed architectural and parks assets help bring new folks here, that will confirm what this year’s Obvie winners Carlino and Saiz said. (And I don’t think we have to worry about their observations about one cost of gentrification, which is that when cities get to be nicer, there’s some displacement of minorities. The reason we don’t need to worry: Displacement occurs in markets where the housing supply is tight. The housing supply here is not tight; there is, sadly, a huge oversupply.)

Let’s understand what this study really means, and locate it in place and time.

The analysis was published in September, before the collapse of the stock market. At that time, as now, Buffalo was still on Forbes magazine’s list of the top 10 dying cities, along with five places in Ohio and a couple of brain-dead places in California.

The economists say that government needs to invest in arts, parks, entertainment, and quality-of-life amenities.

It would seem, then, an opportune time to remind elected officials in this region that this particular study is exclusively about public funding.

The good news is that at least the Erie County Legislature shows evidence of understanding the fundamentals. The bad news is that we do not have a county executive who does.

It has to be the county, because the City of Buffalo stopped funding arts, and radically reduced its support for parks, under Tony Masiello—and Byron Brown has no money in his budget either.

Breaking with both Republican Joel Giambra and his Democratic predecessor Dennis Gorski, Erie County Executive Chris Collins put forward a budget that reduced public support for organizations that provide music, visual arts, theater, and other cultural programming that have a substantial, measureable positive economic impact on the community. He gave no reasoned rationale; he did not measure the economic impact. He just cut.

The Erie County Legislature endorsed most of that budget, with minor modifications; to their credit, the legislators added back some of the funding that Collins cut, especially in parks.

But we will be in recession for years to come. And depopulation of Erie County and of upstate New York in general will continue. How do we not lose what we have?

The simple answer is that public officials have to act before the next Erie County budget is put forward by the county executive who has diminished what had been a bipartisan, multi-administration, county commitment to the public amenities that keep this community livable.

It’s time for the legislators to step forward and secure these community assets. It’s time for the Erie County Legislature to enact a dedicated funding bill before Collins cuts again.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.