Creative economy success in Haverhill

Forum explores local cultural institutions as catalysts for creative economy growth

The spirit was warm among the more than 50 participants gathered in Haverhill on a cold wet day for a forum exploring the role of the creative economy in Gateway City economic development. Despite the dreary weather, the crowd was buoyed by the product of the hard work of many in the room. Through the windows, you could see new shops, cafes, and restaurants along Washington Street in downtown Haverhill. In just a few short years, buildings with empty storefronts symbolizing the city’s struggling economy had been filled with new enterprises advertising success. 

Mayor James Fiorentini welcomed the group to his city, and guided participants on a virtual tour. With photos of redeveloped buildings, he told the story of Haverhill’s rebirth. By leveraging the city’s cultural treasurers, Haverhill has been able to reposition itself for the creative economy. 

The mayor and others involved in the event described how the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) was a key partner in these efforts. In this challenging environment, MCC is looking for innovative ways to help communities around the state tailor creative economy economic development strategies to their “authentic” cultural assets.

Anita Walker, the council’s executive director, explained the goals for new cultural district legislation MCC pushed through last summer. In the coming weeks, her agency will be issuing guidelines and holding information sessions to promote this new program.

While the cultural district designation is not currently associated with specific funding, state agencies are working to coordinate their efforts to support these zones. MCC is likely to consider cultural district planning as it allocates its resources. District designation could be particularly important for communities hoping to take advantage of the state’s cultural facilities fund. This program, which hasn’t had resources since 2009, recently received a new $7 million bond authorization. MCC will be accepting applications this spring for a fall round of cultural facilities fund awards.

The state’s investment in the urban fabric of Gateway Cities through programs like the cultural facilities fund and the historic preservation tax credit is clearly having a real impact. These public dollars are leveraging significant private investment for major redevelopment projects. Equally important, these efforts attract and unite community members, who contribute their time and passion to help Gateway Cities recapture the unrealized potential in their unique urban fabric.

While state capital funds are critical in stimulating reinvestment, resources are needed to program these spaces. Unfortunately, the governor’s budget includes yet another cut to MCC’s operating fund. These reductions come on top of anticipated cuts to the Federal National Endowment for the Arts, which will inevitably impact local organizations.

As a New England Conservatory professor eloquently wrote in a recent letter to the Globe, these industries depend on public support. Just as we wouldn’t let Detroit automakers die in this unprecedented recession for fear of loosing the entire industry, we must consider the long-term consequence of letting arts organizations fail in these difficult times. When cultural groups go, they are often lost for good.

While the public dollars invested in arts and culture are really rather modest, this spending can have real implications for the Commonwealth’s long-term growth. Again and again, the forum’s panelists – who included LZ Nun (Cultural Organization of Lowell), David Zoffoli (Haverhill Cultural Council), and Grace Marcoux (Winnekini Castle) – noted the contribution of arts organizations to a state competing in knowledge industries.

Competition for skilled workers remains as fierce as ever. And talented workers are attracted by communities with high quality of life. In fact, new research by Richard Florida and Gallup polling shows that quality of place is the second most important factor people in the US think makes a strong community. Economic conditions are the only quality rated more highly. The aesthetic beauty of a community actually rates higher than strong public schools, which finish in third. Just below public schools comes social interaction, another quality closely related to the strength of cultural institutions.

These findings come as no surprise to those who have seen how Haverhill’s efforts to strengthen local cultural institutions led to new cafes and restaurants, which in turn attracted new housing, residents, and patrons for local businesses. With MCC as a strong state partner, Gateway Cities across the commonwealth can leverage their cultural assets and replicate this success.


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