More on Arts and Recreation as Economic Drivers

It was the buzz on the street Tuesday, it was a front page article on Wednesday, and it was the editorial on Saturday…the NDDC’s Downtown Forum on Winona was big news this past week.

I attended both the Forum on Tuesday morning and a coffee and pie gathering with the participants on Monday night. I took some notes on what I thought were key concepts from Winona’s efforts and I will attempt to share them here.

Blood does coagulate. Eric Sorenson stressed this point many times. I believe that he was trying to share the message that sometimes communities need to “have it out” or “take it to the mat” and get their messy differences out on the table, argue passionately and then make a decision and move on. He also said that we should remember that we all need to live together the next morning.

In Winona the “blood was spilled” over whether or not to save their historic downtown. Some members of the community believed that those old buildings weren’t worth saving. Once that big battle was settled, the community focused on four things:

– Historic Preservation
– Investing in Downtown
– Mobilizing the Arts
– Embracing the River

I believe that Northfield is beyond that stage in many ways. We have preserved our historic buildings and are investing in downtown. The Arts Guild has been mobilized for almost 50 years. We’ve got the Riverwalk and are planning on extending it.

Personally, I think that the aspect in which we lag behind Winona is that of partnership, groups within the community working together. Perhaps in our fears of spilling blood or flying fur, we never get beyond our initial disagreements to the point where we can actually work together to achieve shared goals.


I found it interesting that in Winona what brought Business and the City together and mobilized the community behind Arts and Recreation was Economic Development. My sense is that it was something beyond the latest trendy book or theory that got these groups working together and has kept them working together for over twenty years on Arts and Recreation.

All three of the presenters, the City Administrator/Japanese Gardener, the Council Person/College Professor and the Bike Trail Advisor/Book Publisher, repeated the same themes. They said that Arts and Recreation Spur Economic Development by Inspiring Creativity and Innovation, Support Recruitment and Retention of Businesses, and are an Essential Part of the Education Process for the New Economy. The Council Member/Dancer summarized it beautifully by saying “Art Lights the Way to a Community’s Future”.

The presenters said that both Business and the City viewed Arts and Recreation as offering a good Return on Investment. Both of these groups saw substantial financial spin-offs from the Arts and that the Bike Trails were the best way to Leverage the Asset of natural beauty.

In Winona, both Business and the City see Arts and Recreation as their Community’s Competitive Advantage. It was the key to differentiating Winona from other communities when decisions were being made on locating high-paying jobs and tax-generating businesses.

My sense from the presenters is that many the of key decision-makers in Winona’s process were “hard-headed, hard-hearted or hard-nosed” business people who are only influenced by solid financial analysis. Perhaps the NDDC, the NAG, the Mill Towns’ Trail Group and the EDA should sponsor a “Business-to-Business” Forum inviting business leaders from both communities to meet and share their analysis of the return on investments in Arts and Recreation.

Over coffee and pie, the presenters from Winona were asked what is the one thing we must do to mobilize the community to pursue economic develop through arts and recreation. The answer was to show the Benefits of the Community’s Health that come from these assets and to demonstrate that everyone in the community benefits from that Health.

Our job then is to demonstrate to all elements in our community that the Arts and Recreation support our youth, our seniors, our working-parents, our schools, our businesses and our city services. We need to show that it these assets not only contribute to our quality of life but to the strength of our economy. Through these efforts, we can hopefully increase the investments and subsequent returns.