I know this may be hard to believe, but I was not born an economic developer. True, if I were a dog, I would have been in economic development for 117 years by now. Sometimes it seemed as if I was doing economic development for that long. And that’s no joke.

After graduating from college, I left my home state of Texas with some friends and decided to start a theater in a rural part of New Mexico that had two-dozen or so residents. It was an old coal-mining town. Some would call it a ghost town, but to its credit, it was bordered by two urban centers that we hoped would be our target market.

I had studied theater since high school and my goal was to be a standup comedian thinking that theater would give me some excellent tools. I was even in the same high school class with Brent Spiner, Lieutenant Commander Data on Star Trek. When I told people that Brent and I were schoolmates, people were impressed. For some reason, they just loved Commander Data. Me? Not so much but I had no problem name-dropping if it helped me headline at a comedy club and make up stories about the Commander…

But there was one small problem with this career track. I wasn’t funny. I had done some stand-up along the way, but my delivery was awkward, my material weak, the stories long winded and my timing, off. That’s not a joke either. They say that dying is easy, comedy is hard. I had mastered the easy part. I soon discovered the hard part.

By now you’re thinking to yourself, “But what does this have to do with economic development and where is the punch line?” (I can’t believe that I just heckled myself.)

What I didn’t realize back then was that my short stint in the arts was really a stepping-stone into economic development. The arts and culture sector is not only a source of entertainment, but an important part of a community’s economic strategy for growth and prosperity. Adding more foot tapping smile-inducing moments to our lives is sound public policy.

Studies have shown time and time again those communities that support the arts:

  • Improve their competitive edge.
  • Create a foundation for defining their sense of place.
  • Attract new and visiting populations.
  • Integrate the visions of community and business.
  • Contribute to the development of skilled workers.

When people think about the creative arts, they tend to think live theater or musicians. But there are many more creative industries that contribute to the general economy. Nationally, 673,656 businesses are involved in the creation or distribution of the arts and they employ 3.48 million people. If you think economic development is a competitive sport, you should try comedy. That’s no joke!!!

This sector represents 4.1% of all U.S. businesses and 2.04% of all U.S. employees. The numbers don’t lie. The arts are a formidable contributor to communities across the country (this concludes the data portion of my blog).

This growth industry is not reserved just for urban communities. In fact, they add great value to rural areas as well. One of the biggest concerns of rural communities is youth out-migration. Supporting an arts and culture sector will “improve self-esteem, reclaim at-risk youth, and build the creative skills that are required of a 21st-century workforce.”

Washington State understands this. That’s why The Washington State Arts Commission has developed the Certified Creative Districts Program. It is a new legislated initiative designed to support the state’s creative economy. By focusing on the creative economy, communities can grow jobs and increase economic, educational and cultural opportunities for residents and visitors.

The commission’s mission is to identify, assist and develop creative districts all over the state.   Certified Creative District communities are a defined area of cultural, social, business and economic activity.

The commission has even created an excellent Community Readiness Toolkit that contains a number of resources, a workbook, handouts, presentations, economic development reference articles, and more to help communities achieve their goal of linking the arts with economic development.

Yes, traditional economic development thinking is about having good roads, good schools, good jobs, good housing and good transportation, etc. But to create and maintain an arts industry, I would like to compliment the toolkit with the following characteristics to be community ready:

A diverse set of activities for people of all ages: An age-friendly community supports and implements policies, programs and services that make it easier for individuals in the community, both young and old, to stay active and engaged. Healthy communities that are proactive in responding to their growing and diversifying populations will better position themselves to retain their existing populations and attract new residents for future generations

A sustainable level of philanthropy and volunteerism: Entrepreneurs, Millennials and corporations play an important role in supporting philanthropic initiatives with real corporate muscle behind them. In addition to cash, they can provide nonprofits with managerial advice, technology and communications support, and teams of employee-volunteers. Increasingly, these entities are realizing that meaningful work that contributes to the community builds a sense of self-worth on a larger scale, a feeling that you do something that matters.

A pleasant affordable recreation or entertainment

In many cities, arts and culture have become a “rich fellows diversion”. The result of this economic exclusion has not only gentrified neighborhoods, but also affected admission into the events and the professions themselves. Working class people have been priced out of a community’s culture. Free nights, lower ticket prices for those who cant afford to go otherwise, free dress rehearsals for students, raising diversity consciousness among arts organizations, integrating the arts into education are all ideas that will make arts inclusive for everyone’s benefit.

A sense of self: Healthy communities must celebrate themselves. The arts help us understand who we are by providing a historical record, a preservation of culture and an autobiography all in one.  A sense of self will document events and experiences and allows us a richer understanding of what a community represents.

So, what happened to my once burgeoning comedy career? Well, it turns out that I was way too hip for the comedy circuit (that’s my story, at least). And while general audiences didn’t “get me” in the Land of Enchantment, economic developers and those in public service found me hilarious as I traveled across the country entertaining practitioners with my wit and wisdom. (At least that’s what I wrote in my promotional pieces). It was a wonderful experience, blending humor and economic development into a career that spanned 26 years. Plus economic developers are not hecklers.

And what about that coal mining town in New Mexico?

Today, most of Madrid, New Mexico has been restored or preserved. It was recently named by AARP as one of the top 10 places to retire comfortably. It has a vibrant creative community with a population of about 400 and 40 artistic shops and galleries where almost everything is Madrid made. There are several restaurants, a spa and a museum, but as of yet, no theater.

Now that I’m retired, I wonder if the residents would finally find a 193-year-old guy (in dog years) funny? On second thought, I’m probably still too hip for the broken hip crowd.

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