Arts and Culture: What They Mean to our Economic Development Efforts

May 10, 2018

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
Having been through the municipal budgeting process here in Augusta on multiple occasions, I’ve witnessed firsthand the temptation local governments have to cut funding to projects and organizations which contribute to a city’s overall quality of life. Often times it seems as though investment in the local arts and culture community rise to the top of the list of potential cuts. With the primary function of government being to provide basic services to citizens in our communities, this temptation is very easy to understand. However, from an economic development perspective, quality-of-life investments are a major factor in business recruitment and is something that should never be undervalued.
A real world example of the importance of local governments having a vested interest in maintaining a focus on their city’s quality-of-life through funding the arts happened here in 2013 during our recruitment of a Starbucks manufacturing facility. Following a long, drawn out and very competitive recruitment process, we were made aware that Augusta and one other city had been placed on the company’s short list. After the announcement finally came that our community would be home to the new facility, with an initial investment of $170 million creating 140 new jobs, I had an interesting conversation with one of Starbucks’ consultants.
During the course of the conversation he shared with me that the one thing that ultimately helped tip the balance in our favor was the fact that Augusta has a thriving arts and culture community. That was somewhat lacking in the city that was our competitor. He went on to say that incentives do matter, but when a major employer makes a twenty to thirty year investment in a community, the quality-of-life of their employees is a major factor in the decision making process.
Last November I had the pleasure of attending the groundbreaking of a $120 million expansion at the Starbucks plant that will create 100 new jobs. I believe this makes a strong case that the return on investment our local government achieves through investing in the arts as a focal point of our local quality-of-life is significant. Whether it’s through supporting the Greater Augusta Arts Council’s regranting program to help fund local arts organizations, or sponsoring the Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival, I’m proud of the City of Augusta’s ongoing commitment to enhancing our local quality-of-life through its support of our local arts community
Just this past week the Augusta Economic Development Authority hosted two representatives of the Consulate General of Canada. The purpose of the visit was to begin a collaboration to explore opening up further business opportunities between Augusta and Georgia’s largest trading partner.
Neither of our two guests had visited our community prior to the meeting and both were amazed to learn of the wide variety of arts and cultural opportunities our city has to offer. I enjoyed sharing with them that the aforementioned Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival draws over 90,000 people to our urban core every September to celebrate arts, food, diversity and culture with over twenty countries represented in the Global Village. Not only are our new friends planning on attending, they’re also planning on letting their colleagues and co-workers know that Augusta is a city that embraces international visitors, residents and investment.
 Although arts and culture are often viewed as niceties in the budgeting process, they can also be necessities in helping to seal the deal from an economic development perspective. These are just two examples of how the strength of our arts and cultural community have served our local economic development efforts. Though the Starbucks plant is tangible return on investment, and it remains to be seen where our new relationship with our Canadian friends will lead, in both situations our community’s commitment to fostering and enhancing our quality-of-life simply stood out. Quality-of-life is hard to define and hard to budget for, but in the end, cities who make it a long-term priority will always be at a competitive advantage for attracting investment.

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