The art of economic development


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The art of economic development
Round Rock sees opportunity to grow creative sector

Scot Wilkinson knew of about seven arts organizations based in Round Rock when he started his job as the city of Round Rock’s Arts and Culture director in 2012. He said now he regularly interacts with about 32 organizations ranging from jazz to digital artists.

The most recent additions, production company Edgen Films and 4Reelz School of Film, opened earlier this year.

“One of the crowning achievements for any city is the arts,” Wilkinson said. “That hadn’t been a focus, and the mayor and council saw it was a low priority. I think it was raised to their attention that the arts needed to be focused on.”

Round Rock’s arts community is growing, and city officials are taking note of the economic impact of the city’s creative sector. The city is looking at the feasibility of building a new performance theater and art venue.

Ben White, vice president of Economic Development at the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, said he has increasingly heard from companies looking to relocate that the arts are an important aspect for them.

“We have met with a number of projects who say their workforce is part of the creative class, and they want a thriving arts scene,” White said. “I think it’s getting brought up more because of the generation they’re currently hiring. Younger people show more interest.”

Economic impact

Randy Cohen, vice president of Research and Policy at Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, said arts are playing a role in economic development efforts throughout the nation.

“Everyone wants to live in a cool community,” he said. “If that’s where the workers are, that’s where the businesses are as well.”

Cohen said his organization has studied communities that held arts-related events, and attendees at nonprofit arts events spend an average of $24.60 per person per event beyond the cost of admission, on items such as meals, parking and babysitters.

“[Arts organizations] really excel in bringing people to the community,” he said. “Those folks spend money.”

The city commissioned a study by Round Rock-based Sarah T. Page Consulting LLC on the economic impact of the Arts Council’s annual Chalk Walk event, at which attendees can create colorful murals on the sidewalk and see professionals craft their works as well. Attendees can also listen to live music, see performances and eat food from local vendors.

Since the event started five years ago it has grown from a few thousand attendees to more than 30,000 in 2014, according to the study.

The study found that there was a $267,491 economic impact directly related to spending from non-locals at the event.

It found that the event attracted residents from Burnet and Bexar Counties and even Montgomery County, which is about 161 miles away driving.

Arts funding and infrastructure

Mike Freeman said when he was the chairman of the city’s bond committee in 2013, everyone on the committee agreed there was a need for an arts facility.

“The challenge we had at the time was no one really had an idea of what that would look like,” Freeman said. “It was hard for us to come up with a dollar amount for a bond election if we didn’t know what [the facility] would be.”

Freeman said the city needed to study the matter further. Since then the city has contracted with Corgan, a design and architecture firm, to develop a needs assessment. Its findings will go before council in June.

Wilkinson said when he was first hired in the position he did not plan on focusing on a single building. However, as he talked to arts organizations in the area he said he learned most of them needed space for the arts.

Wilkinson said the assessment will focus on whether Round Rock needs an arts facility, who would use it and what it could cost.

“It’s been very interesting to see what kind of facility doesn’t exist here,” he said. “There aren’t many facilities in Williamson or north Travis County.”

City Councilwoman Kris Whitfield, who is president of the Round Rock Art Council, said any potential arts facility might not generate net revenue in its first two or three years.

“Return can be a lot of different things,” she said. “We’ve heard from a lot of voices in the community that this is something that’s needed in the community.”

Ryan Crowder is the producing artistic director with the Penfold Theatre Company, which aims to bring more theater to Williamson County. He said he has seen the arts community grow and flourish in Round Rock since the company started about eight years ago.

Crowder said Penfold would like to set up in Round Rock long term, but funding and a lack of venues keep it tied to Austin.

“Round Rock is young in terms of creating financial support for the arts,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t want to; it’s just that they’re new at it. Things like grants are still being developed.”

Furthermore, he said the Austin metro area as a whole does not have as many private organizations funding the arts as other cities its size.

Part of the Arts and Culture office’s mission is to provide grants and funding for the arts. Art groups with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status can apply for up to $5,000 in funding each year from the council.

To further fund artistic projects, Wilkinson said he would like to establish an endowment funded by private entities in the area.

Wilkinson said there needs to be more funding for the arts to continue growing.

“We need to find ways to find that funding,” he said.

Attracting the arts

The council adopted an arts master plan in 2011, which recommended the city hire a director for the arts. The city hired Wilkinson in 2012.

Wilkinson said the council interacts with a broad range of groups that constitute the arts scene.

Private arts-related endeavors are also reporting increased interest from community members. John Howell, founder of the Cordovan Art School in Round Rock, said he is not worried about competition right now.

“If you were to start a new art school in the area you’ll do well as long as you put effort in the business,” Howell said. “There are more artists looking for places than there are spots right now.”

Howell started the school in 2009. He said the school started small by mostly serving members of its neighborhood. Since then the school has expanded to Georgetown, and it offers classes as well as summer camps.

Howell said he attributes the success to opening in a market that was underserved by the arts at the time.

“There were a lot of creative people and not a lot of creative opportunities,” he said.

Edgen Films set up shop in a 2,500-square-foot facility earlier this year. The new production company works with the Texas Film Commission to localize films to the area to have a positive economic impact, co-owner Nichole Walton Durban said.

“We are very active in helping grow and increase the economic stability of the local community,” she said.

Yolanda Sanchez, director and founder of Round Rock-based Latin American dance group Ballet Folklorico, said living in the ‘Sports Capital of Texas’ is not enough for her—she wants the city to be the arts capital of Texas as well.

“People come in from other cities and other states, and they’re shocked to see Round Rock is doing so well in the arts,” she said.