Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Creative Places Boost Tourism and Economic Growth

When Samantha Baumgartner recently moved back to Elkader, Iowa, she quickly saw how arts and culture had changed her hometown.

Murals adorn downtown as part of an Art in the Alley program, and a permanent brick-and-mortar space houses The Collective, a group of artists and small-business owners who work together to enhance the community’s well-being through art sales, concerts, workshops, fitness activities and more. The Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, designated Elkader as an Iowa Cultural and Entertainment District in 2020.

Elkader’s Art in the Alley program added a new touch to old buildings.

“Those are just a couple of things that helped us strengthen our downtown,” said Baumgartner, who directs Main Street Elkader and the local economic development office. “We’ve also been able to use the designation to promote Elkader as a creative place filled with art and cultural opportunities like Art in the Park and other events that appeal to residents and tourists.”

The phrase “creative placemaking” has become more common in recent years. The approach encourages local leaders to include arts and culture in planning for community development. By doing so, communities can enhance property values and the local tax base, attract a more diverse workforce and drive tourism.

In Cedar Rapids, for example, the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District recovered from the floods of 2008 by reinvesting in its historic roots in Czech and Slovak culture. Today the area boasts 43 shops, 37 restaurants, a dozen Airbnb properties and two major museums, the African American Museum of Iowa and the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. The historic Cherry Building houses artist studios, the NewBo City Market features nearly 30 start-up businesses, and CSPS Hall is a hub for art, music and theater.

A wall in Cedar Rapids gets a fresh coat of paint.

Elkader and Cedar Rapids are home to just two of 13 currently designated Iowa Cultural and Entertainment Districts across the state. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs encourages communities to apply for the designation because the program celebrates hubs of cultural activity, arts venues, creative businesses and gathering spaces.

Local leaders say these amenities are increasingly important in their efforts to attract and retain skilled workers. More than two-thirds of young people choose a place to live before they choose a job, according to a recent study.

Creative placemaking is especially important in rural areas, where research shows communities that have more arts and design businesses, live music venues and performing arts facilities tend to grow faster, attract more visitors, and foster more business innovation.

One mural in Cedar Rapids celebrates the city’s immigrants.

Across Iowa, arts and cultural production accounts for more than $4.5 billion in economic activity and 43,000 jobs in a typical year. Although the industry was among the most impacted over the last two years, arts and culture remain one of three key sectors that drive regional economies forward.

“It’s easy to see why so many Iowans are working to make their communities more creative,” Iowa Arts Council Administrator David Schmitz said. “Arts and culture help grow and revitalize communities in so many ways, which is why the Iowa Arts Council is proud to recognize and support Iowa’s Cultural and Entertainment Districts.”

Communities can apply for Iowa Cultural and Entertainment District designation at iowaculture.gov. The next application deadline is May 2.

Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

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