Is Creative Placemaking The Poor Man’s Gentrification?

Part of last week I was attending the Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit for the South and Appalachian region.

I am sorry to say that one of the biggest impressions I came away with is that poverty is the rule rather than the exception in this country. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. I grew up in a rural town and spent a good part of my youth consuming government cheese, rice and powdered milk. I worked in an Appalachian community that was notorious for pill mills and opioid addiction nearly 20 years ago before it was considered so much a crisis that organizations started refusing donations from pharmaceutical companies.

But these all seemed to be generally isolated instances compared to the whole of the country. More and more I am not so sure.

I spent three days last week listening to the majority of the presenters talk about the great projects they have enacted in communities where the median income for a household of four hovers between $19,000 and $32,000 a year.

One of the questions in the first session I attended was about whether placemaking was happening predominantly in rural and impoverished communities. At the time I was thinking about all the urban gentrification that has been going on so I didn’t think that was the case, but by the time I got to the end of conference, I started to wonder if anyone was using creative placemaking as a tool in affluent urban communities. More and more it seemed like Creative Placemaking is something people turn to in order to improve economically depressed communities.

I began to suspect the effort to improve in big cities it is just termed development. If there is any creative element that emerges, it is in compliance with percent for art requirements forcing projects to add artistic elements.

Most of the presenters and attendees seemed to be from small communities. There were some people from Miami and Alameda County, CA at the conference but they talked about how their projects were improving lives in impoverished neighborhoods and creating more positive relationships with the police.  No one was talking about projects on the scale of New York City’s Highline or Hudson Yards

I will confess that this is a large chunk of cynicism talking right now. So much of what is accomplished in smaller communities is definitely due to governments, developers and community advocates entering in conversations to find innovative solutions that improve the status of the entire community. Maybe bigger cities aren’t attending these conferences because they don’t feel the need to participate since they already have developers salivating to build something. As a result, I am hearing the stories of communities with fewer resources.

At the same time I listen to people talk about all small projects they bootstrapped into being viewed as a vast improvement because it added a small walking trail and pole barn pavilion. The fact that this trail is touted as something people can use to spend time with their families after a 10 day of work almost has undertones of those commercials telling us we can improve the lives of people overseas “for pennies a day.” Except that it isn’t overseas. It is kinda dispiriting.

I don’t have to tell those of you in the arts community that even when a project clearly has improved conditions, it isn’t necessarily valued. Germaine Jenkins talked about the farm she and her colleagues at Fresh Future Farm created in North Charleston, SC, transforming an empty lot into a garden with a store that charges people on a sliding scale according to their need. Her lease is up in September with no indication of whether it will be renewed.

There was a time when people were criticizing the superficial understanding of Richard Florida’s observations of the relationship between Creative Class and vibrant communities. There was a sense that you just needed to attract creative people to place and they would take care of the rest. I feel like Creative Placemaking reflects a more sophisticated understanding that a complex mix of factors from public policy, community dynamics, business and cultural resources, etc need to be in place and requires constant attention and balancing.

Yet I am starting to wonder if people see the success of creative placemaking efforts elsewhere and perceive it to be the panacea for the problems that plague their communities.

Yet, perhaps this is what is needed at this juncture– the example of success elsewhere as a model of what should be done locally. Last week Notre Dame cathedral burned down and people apparently recognized that there was a spate of recent church burning in the US that had not received the attention and support that the cathedral did and started donating toward the restoration of those US churches. The people who are undertaking these project understand that there is a lot of hard work and consensus building required. Maybe the examples of others will bring a positive result in the long run.

Theater Seeking Animation With Creative Vitality

Something I thought might be interesting to readers.  The City of Douglas, GA has issued a request for proposals (RFP) to purchase and run a historical theater.  You don’t see this that often so it was interesting to me the type of things that go into an RFP to run a theater.

The 750 seat Martin Centre was constructed in 1939-41 as a movie house but was renovated to accommodate live performances. The city is looking for someone to purchase the venue for at least $200,000 and continue to operate it as an arts venue.

The City is seeking proposals with the following indicators:

a)Recognize the historical significance of the building and maintain architectural characteristics of the theater’s façade.

b)Honor all upcoming rental contracts where the lessee has paid deposit and/or rental for the booking.

c)Deliver a use that will further promote Downtown Douglas as an entertainment and cultural destination location in South Georgia and Georgia and be cohesive with existing downtown uses.

d)Clearly demonstrate economic feasibility.

e)Demonstrate a positive economic benefit to the downtown Douglas area and the City of Douglas.

f)Offer a purchase price of at least $200,000.00.

As part of the proposal, they essentially request that the applicant outline how they will accomplish all these things. They also list how each criteria will be weighted.

For me, it was interesting to see how the RFP reflected the hopes and ambitions for what the Martin Centre might be for the city. They highly encourage people to discuss potential use of an adjacent plaza as part of the proposals. They are definitely hoping the new owner’s vision extends beyond the physical walls of the space.

Since I expect the listing to go off line after the May 6 deadline, I am archiving a copy of the PDF here for future reference for RFPs along these lines.

Non Profits & Buying Locally – Good For The Community vs Bad For Overhead Ratio

Back in September, Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ) pointed to a new research study which has found overheard ratio is not a valid measure of organizational effectiveness. In fact, it there is a slight negative correlation between overheard ratio and commonly used measures of efficiency.

“…but our work is the first to approach it using efficiency theory—and we were able to demonstrate the problem using real-world data.”

….“In short,” Coupet says, “this demonstrates that not only is the overhead ratio bad at assessing efficiency, but also that using it to assess efficiency may actively mislead donors. We argue that nonprofit scholars, managers, and donors should move away from concepts and measures of efficiency based on financial ratios, and toward ones that embrace maximizing what nonprofits are able to make and do.”

NPQ says according to the study, overhead ratio is a poor measure of effectiveness because it doesn’t reflect what organizations are doing with their resources or what they “are accomplishing with their non-overhead spending.”

In other words, like I have written so often before, the value of what a non-profit does is not reflected by transactional data, economic impact numbers or test scores.

This being said, another part of the article raises the intriguing idea that if a non-profit is supposed to be working for the benefit of their community, shouldn’t they be focusing on buying locally rather at chain stores or wholesale warehouses? If so, the higher cost of buying locally would raise their costs a bit and impact their overhead ratio. But it may be worthwhile to do so.

Should we stop looking for cost savings that benefit our bottom line but lead to purchasing that harms the greater community? In other words, should nonprofits be considering (and be supported to pursue) their own “buy local” policies?

‘Nonprofits should be shouting about how much of their spending happens at locally owned, minority-owned, women-owned, veteran-owned or disabled-owned businesses. There is a multiplier effect in spending locally that shows that for every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $45 of that is re-spent locally, while national chains only spend $14 of that sale locally.’

This is an intriguing idea that has this author (a nonprofit executive who manages purchasing) feeling the financial pinch of a cogent ethical argument: If buying local supports healthy communities, and the mission and values of my organizations are tied to relevant healthy community outcomes, why am I doing my shopping at big box (including online) retailers?

This broadens the scope of what it means to be a non-profit in service to the community. Touting how much is being spent at locally owned business won’t necessarily smother the use of overhead ratio as a standard, but it has the potential to blunt the ratio’s use in an argument of a non-profit’s worthiness.

Play More Poker If You Love The Arts?

Earlier this week I wrote about the negative impact casino construction can have on the viability of performing arts entities in a region. I mentioned the steps a coalition of performing arts organizations took to mitigate those effects in NY State.

Even as I was mentioning this model at the meeting I attended to those discussing the casino related lobbying efforts, I was thinking that a model similar to the one in New York might be attractive to state legislators if they thought they could have gambling revenue replace state funding for arts and culture.

This could be a problem for a number of reasons. For a long time state lotteries have been sold as a way to provide funding for education, but the results have often been mixed with some believing the lottery funding has allowed state governments to shift funding elsewhere leaving education funding generally flat.

According to the Brookings Institute,

“Some scholars have argued that lottery earmarks provide a net positive impact, despite some fungibility. One study, for example, estimated that a dollar of lottery earmark funds for K-12 education increased per pupil spending by 50 to 70 cents, with the rest of the money being diverted for other purposes. Others have argued that lottery earmarks lead state lawmakers to supplant education funding so much that states invest less in education over the long run.

This is because budget decisions are made in context of scarcity, in which allocating resources to one arena of state policy limits the ability to fund other programs. Therefore, when lottery earmark revenue emerges, state lawmakers may use lottery earmark revenue to supplant instead of supplement education funding so that they can free up general fund money for other purposes that matter to their constituents and avoid raising taxes in the process.

What also should be considered is social dissonance in this form of funding as recently suggested by James Doeser in The Art Newspaper, regarding the use of lottery proceeds to fund the Arts Council of England.

Since its introduction in the mid-1990s, the UK National Lottery has made a lot of poor people slightly poorer while equipping Arts Councils to enrich an arts sector that disproportionately serves the better-off. It is not hard to picture an old woman applying coin edge to scratch card, with no more chance of winning the jackpot than of stepping inside the gallery she has helped to build

[…]

Arguing for public funding for the arts would be much easier if our tax regime were more progressive, and those engaging with the arts more reflective of society as whole…. Thanks to an austerity-induced accounting trick, the replacement of tax by lottery funding means that the least well-off increasingly shoulder the cost of rich people’s pursuits. A lot of well-meaning and progressive people continue to benefit from this arrangement, but it is not fair and needs to be questioned.

Which is more preferable when it comes to seeking an increase in public funding, making yet another appeal to supporters to contact their representative about bolstering arts funding or encouraging supporters to play more blackjack?

(Yes, that is a huge false dichotomy)

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