It’s not news that Robeson County could benefit from economic stimulus. In the past two decades, the already poor county has been hit by economic recession as well as natural disaster. More jobs are needed and better opportunities are welcomed. Yet, while a number of paths have been considered, there seems to be one avenue that has certainly been less traveled — the economic benefits realized by the arts.
A study released earlier this year by Americans for the Arts, out of Washington, D.C., in coordination with the Robeson County Arts Council, reported that $4 million in economic activity was generated by the arts in Robeson in 2015. Of that total, about $1 million was spent on arts-related purchases, and almost a quarter of that was the result of tourist and visitor spending.
Let’s be clear: The arts industry is not a panacea for the ills of Robeson County, but the data in this report indicates that there is benefit in what the arts bring to the table. Arts programs in Robeson County support 124 full-time equivalent jobs and more than $2 million in household income. The latter is a combination of redistributed funds from purchases, as well as money spent directly on tickets, concessions, souvenirs and artwork.
So, you ask, “Where is that money going? And how is buying a ticket to a play helping people in the county?” Great question. Here’s one example, but there are many others.
A local theatre group produces a play. To build the set for the play, materials are purchased at a local hardware store. Let’s just say $100 is spent on a five-gallon bucket of paint. Part of that money is used to pay the store clerk who sold the paint. The store clerk uses that money to buy groceries, the grocery store uses some of that money to pay one of its employees and that person uses to money towards their utility bills. One local play has now contributed in its small way to the local economy.
However, as you might have guessed, that’s not a huge dent in a county where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 32 percent of residents live below the poverty line and the median income is about $30,000. To simply quote Mary Ann Masters, president of the Robeson County Arts Council: “We can do more … .”
The Americans for the Arts study reports that 82 percent of Americans believe the arts are important to local business and economy, and 87 percent of Americans say they believe the arts are important to quality of life.
A Huffington Post article, “The Arts Economy Is Worth Billions,” reports that in 2015, “the arts contributed more than four percent to our nation’s GDP… agriculture and mining – together – make up three percent of our nation’s GDP.” Further, the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis report that between 1998 and 2013 contributions to the economy from arts-related activity grew by more than 32 percent and spending on performing arts grew 10 percent annually.
What this data tells us is that not only are jobs being created for people in the arts sector, but local and state revenue are there to benefit communities. In Robeson County, the Americans for the Arts study found that spending by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Robeson County contributed approximately $283,000 to local and state revenue.
Aside from the money generated from arts organizations in Robeson County, volunteers in Robeson County donated more than 59,000 hours to nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, and the aggregate value of in-kind contributions equaled nearly $150,000.
One of Robeson County’s leading industries is tourism, and the study reports that in 2015 tourists and visitors contributed more than $340,000 to the county economy. That money went to restaurants, hotels, transportation, refreshments and souvenirs. Among the respondents of the survey, nearly 85 percent said they specifically came to Robeson County for art or cultural events.
More importantly, 60 percent of county residents who answered the survey said that if the arts-related event they were attending was not happening, they would have traveled to another community for the same or a similar event. Local arts keep that money at home.
Robeson County is blessed with at least five performing arts venues — The Carolina Civic Center, Givens Performing Arts Center, The Stage in Fairmont, Inner Peace Center for the Arts in Lumberton, and Robeson Community College’s A.D. Lewis Auditorium. Few rural counties can boast that. Additionally, a new stage has been built in downtown Lumberton for concerts and events, and major revitalization efforts are focused on improvements in that area.
If this county could harness the collective power to participate in, appreciate, and invest in local arts, the results could reap great benefits for a county that is often overlooked for its talent and cultural contributions.
Again, to reiterate the comments of the Robeson County Arts Council President, “We can do more…”
James Bass is the executive director of Givens Performing Arts Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He may be reached at: email@example.com