A new study of the economic impact of the arts in Roanoke asserts that arts and culture generate $64 million annually for the city’s economy.

The study, conducted by Washington, D.C., nonprofit Americans for the Arts, further contends that the arts in Roanoke support the equivalent of 1,774 full time jobs and produce $6.5 million in revenue for local and state governments.

“Arts are an industry right here in Roanoke,” said Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy for Americans for the Arts, during a peppy Thursday morning presentation to government and arts nonprofit officials in Charter Hall. “Small investment, big return, that’s what we get with the arts.”

The Roanoke Cultural Endowment commissioned the study using funds given by an anonymous donor. “This study is a bedrock advocacy tool for the arts,” said Roanoke Cultural Endowment Executive Director Shaleen Powell.

At Roanoke City Council’s Thursday afternoon meeting, with the seats filled by arts leaders and supporters, council members warmly received a second presentation by Powell and Cohen.

“Everybody in this room contributes so significantly and it’s not just quality of life, there is real financial impact,” said councilwoman Michelle Davis. “It’s a huge uphill battle and we recognize that and support it.”

The study arrives ahead of the council’s 2019-20 budget meetings. Even though council members frequently express support for arts and culture, “I think there’s a lot more that could be done,” said Cathy Greenberg, a Roanoke consultant who volunteers with the endowment.

“I think we have top potential to be a really unique and strong cultural hub,” Powell said.

The argument the study makes isn’t intended only for decision makers in government, said endowment board member Katherine Fralin. “It’s also for business leaders and for citizens.”

“It’s a validation that yes, what we do is important,” said Roanoke Children’s Theatre founder Pat Wilhelms.

Mill Mountain Theatre Producing Artistic Director Ginger Poole said the new study will be a big help “for us who are constantly pounding the table with our mission and our message.” She added that it will also give arts nonprofits more leverage in applying for grants.

If the arts as industry refrain sounds familiar, Wayne Strickland, executive director of the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, said virtually the same thing to Roanoke City Council in June 2018 as he presented a study on the economic impact of the arts.

That study, done for the Roanoke Arts Commission, used different methods and measurements and concluded that arts-related tourism brings about $35.8 million in sales revenue to the Roanoke Valley.

Wednesday, Strickland said that unlike his organization’s study, the Americans for the Arts survey directly polled 775 individuals in the audiences that came to Roanoke arts events, which makes a major difference. “This is probably as accurate as you can get.”

Americans for the Arts also polled more organizations. The new study had 30 arts organizations participate, as opposed to 16 in the 2018 study. Although the new study excluded individual artists and for-profit businesses, it included arts programs run under the umbrella of a non-arts organization, such as St. John’s Music on the Corner and the Greene Memorial Fine Arts Series, and municipal organizations, such as Berglund Center. Those organizations provided figures that related only to arts programming and performances, Cohen said.

That $64 million has two parts: $25 million in spending by arts and culture organizations and $39 million in spending by audiences who come to an event. Those amounts include estimations calculating how often a dollar is re-spent before it leaves the region — an example included in the study cites how the purchase of a bucket of paint for a theater production gives money to a store and its employees.

The study uses the same methods as a national study Americans for the Arts conducted in 2015 that included 341 cities and counties, making it possible to compare Roanoke to other localities. For example, according to the study, Asheville, North Carolina, with a population of 87,882, had an economic impact figure of $58.6 million. Lynchburg, with a population of 79,047, had an impact figure of $10.8 million.

Powell noted that variations in how organizations in each locality responded mean the comparisons can’t automatically be assumed as apples to apples.

Tables provided in the study show that Roanoke’s results were consistently above the median for communities of the same size. “The arts community punches above its weight in attendance and economic impact,” Cohen said.

“I think it’s helpful to hear from a third party what we have been talking about,” said Roanoke Symphony Orchestra Executive Director David Crane. “Our impact in the community isn’t only entertainment.”

Created in 2014 by Roanoke City Council , the Roanoke Cultural Endowment is a public-private partnership funded by annual city allocations and private donations. Intended to assist arts organizations with their operating budgets, the endowment won’t begin giving out grants until it accumulates $20 million, a goal that’s still years away.

In 2018, RCE received a gift from a donor who wanted the money to benefit Roanoke arts immediately. That money paid for the Americans for the Arts study and allowed the endowment to sponsor the Star City Arts Festival in August.

Powell said the endowment is working on an audit of participating organizations that will help them identify needs and share resources. “There’s more on the horizon,” she said.

Cohen said that his organization has encountered public-private partnerships that support the arts operating at the state level, but rarely on a local level. “It’s the leading edge.”

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Mike Allen covers government happenings in Franklin County and Botetourt County for The Roanoke Times and also writes the weekly Arts & Extras column.

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