Let’s make a stronger commitment to arts and culture

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Arts and culture organizations can fuel significant economic growth in cities and benefit all citizens, whether they attend a single play, exhibit or concert in their lifetime or not.

While this is not the message those of us working in this sector want to put out there — we do, after all, want as many people as possible to engage in meaningful experiences with our cultural offerings — the fact is that citizens reap the economic rewards of arts and culture organizations regardless of whether or not they partake.

Colorado Springs and surrounding communities — Manitou Springs, Woodland Park, Monument, Fountain, Pueblo and greater El Paso County — could together harness the power of this economic engine and boost significant growth in our local economies.

We don’t have to look very far to see how this might work for our region. Metro Denver enjoyed $1.76 billion in economic activity generated by its arts and culture sector in 2011, thanks to a forward-thinking sales tax passed by its citizens 24 years ago.

The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) Tax, approved by the citizens of Metro Denver in 1989, sends 1 cent on every $10 spent in the seven-county metro area to a tiered system of cultural and scientific facilities (Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Art Museum, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Zoo, and many more large, medium and small cultural nonprofits).

The results are astounding: After years of investing tax dollars in Denver’s cultural institutions, the SCFD tax brought in $41.9 million in revenues in 2011, which yielded $1.718 billion injected into the economy.

Clearly, this has been a smart investment by the taxpayers of Metro Denver, who have not only the economic results to be proud of but a region that is culturally vital, attracting businesses and entrepreneurs, coveted creative-class workers, and destination tourists from around the world.

Metro Denver’s population was estimated at 2.6 million in 2011; Colorado Springs and outlying areas had 622,263 in 2010 — approximately a quarter of the size. Our Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region (COPPeR) reported an economic impact of $72 million in 2010 from arts and culture nonprofits with no direct support from taxpayers.

Impact was calculated using the same evaluation tools as those employed in Denver’s SCFD reports. By comparison Colorado Springs combined with El Paso County generated 4.1 percent as much economic impact as was seen in Metro Denver in the same time period. When you consider our arts and culture sector generates these numbers without taxpayer funding, it’s remarkable. It’s also clear that we could be getting so much more from this economic sector if we invested in it.

Research was conducted for both cities using identical tools by calculating total economic activity. Economists track how many times a dollar is spent and re-spent within the local economy, and the economic impact generated by each round of spending.

COPPeR uses these same metrics to calculate the economic impact of organizations such as the one I direct, the UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art. It’s estimated GOCA contributes $540,000 annually in economic benefit to Colorado Springs based on our 9,000 visitors in the 2011-2012 season. Compare that to the 1.3 million spectators for arts and culture programming in Colorado Springs in 2010, and the impact is easy to visualize.

Imagine what our arts and culture sector could generate in terms of economic and cultural impact if we had consistent funds such as the SCFD supplies in Metro Denver. A vital, thriving arts and culture sector would change the game for our region, attracting high-quality employers and keeping our younger generations from leaving in search of creative communities — like Denver.

We’ve got the natural beauty and climate — investing in our arts and culture would make us a remarkable destination in the region, building on our cultural history and legacy in the West. I suggest we all support — and fund — arts and culture for our own economic good.

Daisy McConnell is director of the UCCS Galleries of Contemporary Art.