Local/Regional Economic and Community Development

May 14, 2015

Bandstand Economic Development

 By Scott Hutcheson

Assistant Program Leader for Community Development, Purdue Extension and Senior Associate, Purdue Center for Regional Development

Scott Hutcheson works with local and regional communities across the U.S. and abroad, helping civic leaders implement strategies to grow their local economies and ensure quality of life for residents.

“When a man loves a woman, can’t keep his mind on nothin’ else… .” If you are like me you can’t even read those words without hearing the soulful sound of Percy Sledge. The world lost him last month; but that song will live forever.

As fate would have it, I found myself in North Alabama a week after he died. “The Shoals,” as its called, is a collection of four communities in close proximity to one another: Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. Together they offer a rich history of rock and roll, blues and R&B.

Sledge recorded right there in “The Shoals” as have other greats like Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones. Current performers such as Tim McGraw and The Black Keys still make their way to this region of North Alabama to get just the right sound.

As I drove into the area in my rented car, I swore I could hear Percy sing, “He'd give up all his comforts and sleep out in the rain if she said that's the way it ought to be.”

One of my friends and colleagues, who also works with communities, once told me that when he goes to a new city or town, he listens closely for the music to give him a good idea about what’s going on in that place. He went on to say that this music he’s listening for is both the literal kind that gets played on guitar and piano but also the metaphorical music you hear as you listen to conversation of locals sipping coffee at the diner or the chatter among parents watching from the stands as their little one’s play baseball.

Sometimes you hear harmony in their voices, other times dissonance. He says that if he hears what sounds like harmony, his job will be an easy one. On the other hand, if he hears mostly discord his work is likely to be difficult.

During my visit to North Alabama, all the sounds I heard were pleasant to the ear – many voices working together to design their own future, ushering in “what’s next” for The Shoals – a vibrant, growing economy and a high quality of southern rural life. One resident put it to me this way, “We just don’t tolerate ugly talk around here,” when I noted how positive the conversations were.

Perhaps there’s a connection between the region’s musical history and the health of their civic environment. Some recent research indicates that this may be the case. In January of this year, researchers Peter Pedroni and Stephen Sheppard from Williams College released findings from their study of 384 U.S. communities to see if there is a relationship between economic growth and the “local arts and culture production."

They did indeed find a relationship. Higher levels of community investment in the arts are positively correlated with per-capita gross domestic product. Not only did they find correlation, they found causation. Investing more in the arts leads to long-term positive impact on the economy.

We’ve just had a primary election in the community where I live, and in one race in particular there was a lot of talk – “ugly talk” actually – between the candidates and among those supporting them, about what represents a “good” and “bad” investment in economic development.

Resources to invest in economic development are limited, so our civic leaders need to pick and choose. We can’t do it all. What a grand experiment it would be to go “all in” on the arts as a strategy for economic growth. Bandstand Economic Development, if you will.

Imagine a community where music was being performed somewhere every single day, where inspiring murals and sculptures greeted you at every corner, schools in which art and design was as high a priority as math and science.

That might also be a community in which there wasn’t any “ugly talk” and we dealt with even our toughest issues in harmony with one another. If Pedroni and Sheppard’s research holds true, it just might also be a community that is growing economically. Maybe its time to give “bandstand economic development” a try.


Download an audio version of this column: MP3

Related Links