The Practice of Creativity

Creative Chatham—Feeding the Inner Life and Fostering Economic Development

Posted on: March 23, 2011

Question: What would make over 130 business leaders, artists, politicians and representatives from various nonprofit organizations stay inside on an 80 degree Saturday? Answer: A spirited discussion about how Chatham County can use its natural strengths to develop its creative economic sector. I’m a professional creativity coach and I had the pleasure of being in that room talking with participants about arts, culture and place based economic development at The Chatham Creative Economy Summit.

The role of creativity and its relationship to thriving communities has been front and center on North Carolina’s agenda from Governor Perdue to The Institute for Emerging Issues who hosted a conference on creativity last year. The Chatham County Economic Development Corporation organized Saturday’s program. It was sponsored by Progress Energy and local groups including Shakori Grassroots Festival, the Chatham Arts Council, the Chatham Artists Guild and The NC Arts Incubator.

The unstated goals of the summit were to educate thought leaders about how a creative economy is not just about bringing artists to a community but supports an infrastructure of employment opportunities. I attended because I wanted to hear new ideas about how residents of Chatham County can assist in strengthening Chatham County’s identity as a creative place that supports businesses and economic development. And, I wasn’t disappointed.

Linda Carlisle, Secretary of the NC Department of Cultural Resources and former entrepreneur gave a rousing keynote address. Her office includes the State Library, the State Archives, 27 Historic Sites, 7 History Museums, Historical Publications, Archaeology, Genealogy, Historic Preservation, the North Carolina Symphony, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Audience members took notice when she said that the creative sector is nearly 6% of NC’s overall economy. About 300,000 jobs and $41 billion (and she stressed the ‘B’ in billion) annually are directly tied to creative activities in the state. Another surprising nugget was learning that the creative sector is resilient; it is one of the employment sectors that doesn’t shed jobs– even in times of economic downtown. And, creative employment is less likely to be shipped overseas.

Carlisle offered excellent examples across the state of other communities that have distinguished themselves by developing a creative identity that supports economic development. The ‘Weaverville Arts Safari’, a self-guided tour of local arts, in Weaverville, that brings people to the area and Greensboro’s Triad Stage that has triggered business development in the downtown area are two examples. Carlisle encouraged us to think about how we communicate the value of arts and culture to others as not only developing the inner lives of residents, but that the creative sector “feeds families in North Carolina”. North Carolina is the 6th most visited state in the country. Carlisle is eager to build on that success, and do even better. The key, she believes, is to continue to support communities that have strong cultural and heritage tourism potential. She gave several tips about how Chatham County can build on its already impressive array of distinctions including a niche focus in sustainable agriculture, the Shakori Grassroots music festival, a strong literary tradition, and a nationally known biofuels industry.

Building on Chatham’s already existing treasures was a theme followed up by the panelists after the keynote. Mary Regan, director of the NC Arts Council was the moderator for the panel. Diane Cherry (policy manager for Institute for Emerging Issues, NC State University) provided more examples of communities that have capitalized on arts driven economic development. She and Georgann Eubanks (communications consultant and filmmaker),challenged us to think about how to create a unified brand about what Chatham offers to visitors and potential businesses. Eubanks said that the creative economy is broad and diverse and includes the culinary arts, makeup artists and hairstylists, radio stations and churches and the people who have shaped a particular place. Once a community approaches a critical mass in bringing together an array of resources, strong economic gains are much more likely. Betty Hurst (Director of Entrepreneurship, Handmade America) talked about the need for leadership and the importance of working together to create a vision that everyone is proud of and promotes. The panel started late and unfortunately, Stuart Rosenfeld (economist, founder of Regional Technology) had to rush through his presentation. He focused on why many people don’t understand the value of a creative economic infrastructure.

Although it was listed as a panel discussion, there was no Q&A between panelists and the audience which was frustrating. We had a 5 minute break and then we were asked to have a table top discussion with a ‘table leader’ to apply what we heard to Chatham. The table I was sitting at didn’t have an assigned a table leader. It was bit chaotic because everyone had a pent up desire to talk, had to squeeze in lunch, and it wasn’t clear what we were to do with our table exercise once we were finished. Despite this bit of chaos, all tables managed to brainstorm ideas about furthering the economic development of Chatham County’s creative economy. My table concluded that Chatham did not necessarily need new events to attract people here, we already have great things to do, see and experience; we need better marketing and branding strategies so that people can easily find out about us.

After lunch, the audience got to hear from the Meet the New Media panel including Tim Moore, Carolina Business Connection, David Fellerath, Culture Editor for The Independent Weekly and Leoneda Inge, reporter for WUNC Radio. This panel, moderated by Rebecca Antonelli, provided nuts and bolts advice about how to get out to the media all the good things that Chatham offers.

An incredible amount of hard work went into putting this event together. As a first-of-its-kind-event, I think it was very successful. Overall, people walked away energized, informed , having met new contacts and ready to work with local organizations to support the vision of a thriving Chatham creative economic sector. I felt moved enough to volunteer to convene a ‘creative cluster’ of folks to meet and keep the conversation going. I hope this summit becomes an annual event.

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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