The Creativity of Rural America

Reports show how creative enterprises can help the economy of rural America.

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Could the sound of rural America’s newest economic engine be the dulcet sounds of a hand crafted duck call cascading across flooded rice land in rural Arkansas? Or could rural America’s competitive advantage lie in the unique Western art being created in the open spaces around Sheridan, Wyoming? Or how about an artist in every nook and cranny of Yancey and Mitchell County, North Carolina?  The point being is that the creative economy—from the arts to innovative- design holds as much promise in the rural United States as it does in the cities and metropolitan areas that most people focus on when they discuss the creative class in the U.S.

Regional Technology Strategies and its partner in the Alliance for Creative Advantage, Mt. Auburn Associates, has recently completed a series of reports in Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming and North Carolina that show how creativity and creative enterprises help rural regions develop their economies more effectively.   By the creative economy, RTS strays from the pop-economic notion of the “creative class” that too often sees metropolitan areas, with their high concentration of people with advanced degrees, as the only places where creativity is taking place.  Applying the creative economy to a class of workers rather than to an actual set of industries misses a crucial component of economic development.  Rather, we define “creativity” to a select group of businesses that produce and distribute goods and services and for which the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional engagement of the consumer adds value to products in the marketplace.  This can range to traditional arts and crafts made by residents to high-end manufactured products that depend on design for their appeal.  In particular, we see the creative economy being made up of:

•    Individual artists who are the talent and source of creativity
•    Non-profit cultural institutions and commercial businesses that take the original ideas of these artists and produce creative goods and services
•    The businesses and institutions that bring the creative products to the marketplace
•    The institutions and commercial businesses that depend on creative talent to survive and prosper
•    The support system that nurtures and sustains the creative economy.


Provided by Regional Technologies Strategies, Inc.

When and where these elements are in place, you have all the hallmarks of an industrial cluster-but instead of producing automobiles or pharmaceuticals, your region is engaging in creativity, with often exciting results.  Some examples of rural creative clusters include:

•    Individuals and companies creating handcrafted duck calls in Stuttgart, Arkansas.  Orders come in from around the world to purchase items associated with the “the “Duck Hunting Capital of the World,”
•    Hand crafted leather products in Sheridan, Wyoming.  The center of Cowboy Art, the region has a higher percentage of individuals involved in the creative economy than are in manufacturing.
•    A group of potters in Chatham County, North Carolina make that area a destination for clay enthusiasts around the country and the local community college helps the artists grow their business through classes and networking meetings.

So why aren’t more rural regions looking to the creative economy as an engine for economic growth? The biggest reason is often simply that this sector of the economy can be hard to count.  Much of the wealth that the creative economy produces falls just under the radar screen of conventional economy analyses.  This sector is populated by large numbers of microenterprises, misclassified enterprises, firms without employees, part-time businesses, secondary or supplementary sources of income that are vital to a family’s livelihood, and businesses embedded in our sectors.  Further, it is not captured by employment data based on unemployment insurance laws meaning that it is left uncounted.  Any rural area looking to analyze its creative economy needs to look beyond traditional analysis techniques.  In analyzing Arkansas creative economy, for instance, we used not only traditional measures like County Business Patterns, put out by the US Census, but looked at the rolls of the self-employed and studied manufacturing directories, to see companies that might not necessarily be included in traditional statistics.  For instance, a company that makes handcrafted iron bed frames in Mountain View would be classified simply as furniture manufacturer without closer analysis.

But it is not just about showing that rural areas have more creative people than originally thought it is about showing that these people and the items they produce have a real impact on the rural economy.  Applying national models to Arkansas, for instance, showed that without artists and design workers in that state, we estimate that employment would have increased by only 15% between 1990 and 200 instead of the 24 percent growth that actually occurred.  And as traditional manufacturing declines in rural areas, as well as across the nation, the creative economy represents a chance for rural areas to be places not just where things are made cheaper but a source of products that establish a niche for their region and cause consumers to keep coming back for more.

Like any economic development effort there are particular challenges that rural areas face in promoting the growth of their creative economy, but there are ways in which these can be addressed.  While artists and creative types in cities often live in the same neighborhood or sometimes in the same abandoned warehouse, rural artists often live far away from their peers, making networking difficult.  To combat this isolation, arts councils in rural areas and other actors need to be proactive in forming associations that bring artists together. One way to do this is through joint marketing techniques. Handmade in America in Western North Carolina is one of the most successful examples of this approach.  Under Handmade in America efforts, tourists from around the nation now can take trips one of seven different craft heritage trails and tour hundreds of artists and crafts people.

Another ways that rural areas can promote their creative economy is through the existing institutions, especially educational ones.  Community colleges, which often have a role to play in economic development through customized training for industry, are a natural place to start.  Colleges can expand their offerings of arts education for not only existing students but for continuing education but they can also offer business classes to artists who while can produce beautiful works may not know how to manage the financial end of their business. Haywood Community College in North Carolina for instance sponsored an entrepreneurial boot camp for artists providing a short intensive class for artists looking to move their business to the next level.  CraftNet is an RTS-sponsored alliance of 14 rural community colleges working to develop their creative economy.

But perhaps the most important step that rural areas can take is simply to give the arts and creativity their due as an economic development engine.  Chambers of commerce and tourism promotion agencies should see how much creativity can and could contribute to a rural region’s economic growth.  If your Chamber is selling a wild ride down your whitewater, perhaps they should also be promoting the local craftsperson down the way.  If your local economic development authority is offering millions of dollars in incentives to lure the last auto plant left in the US, they might want to consider instead spending their money to promote the most important asset in their community—the creativity of their citizens.

Dan Broun is Director of Special Projects at Regional Technology Strategies, Inc. in Carrboro, North Carolina.  RTS recently released its Final Report on Arkansas Creative Economy for the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.  For that report and others, please go to www.rtsinc.org

 

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