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Downtown Arts and Entertainment: The ‘Closer’ for City Wide Development

November 7, 2014  |  Chris McGahee, Duluth Economic Development Manager
Since 2011, Duluth’s Red Clay Theatre, now a live music venue run by music promoter Eddie Owen, has generated 50,000 night time visits after 7 p.m.

When Eddie Owen, founder of the legendary Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, first paid a visit to downtown Duluth, the experience was enough to change the path of his life and career. He left the hip, comfortable, urban environment of Decatur to set up shop in Duluth’s Red Clay Theatre. That was nearly three years ago.

What did Owen see in the 138 year old city of 28,000, three miles off Interstate 85 and nestled squarely in a suburban environment that caused him to make such a move?

“I could not get the place out of my mind and the deal closer was the 15,000 square foot performance venue that had been converted from a downtown church,” Owen explained. “I called every friend I knew to talk me out of it, but the dream of a total music experience would not let me go.”

City officials were not quite so enamored with the city owned venue as Owen was at the time. The building had been purchased in the “golden age” of Gwinnett County development in 2004 and converted to a Broadway Stage complete with state of the art sound and lighting equipment and seating 267. The first theatrical show was performed in 2006.

At first the venue was operated as a lease in a “for profit” environment. The numbers could not support the cost and the operators turned the keys back over to the city 25 months later. After a series of starts and stops with various performance groups with mixed results, the city took complete control of the venue in 2010.

“Those were tough times,” recalled Mayor Nancy Harris. “We could have scrapped the whole thing and redeveloped the land.” Harris was a new mayor in the first year of her term and the “Great Recession” was beginning to be felt. “There was so much uncertainty in 2008 and development literally came to a standstill,” she said. “We did not waste the time wringing our hands though. We educated ourselves and we planned to self-determine our future.”

The mayor, council and staff began a systematic evaluation of Duluth’s strengths and weaknesses during this time. One of those discoveries was the value of art in creating economic development opportunities.

“We really did not understand how art in all of its aspects could directly translate into economic investment from the private sector,” Harris said. “Leadership along with strong defined financial support from the city turned out to be vitally important in overcoming the fear of risk. With that the city set about creating, supporting, and implementing an art infrastructure to foster a cultural atmosphere.”

During crucial debates as to where limited resources should be allocated, the city hired a performance venue consultant to provide an unbiased examination of the return on investment for the Red Clay complex. The results of that study enlightened the leadership and the community as to how vital the operation of the venue was to the economy of downtown and to the general perception in the developer community.

Chris Brewer was the lead consultant spending nearly a week in Duluth talking to community leaders, Owen, business owners and parties outside of the local jurisdiction. “The city had done a great job in creating a downtown space that people immediately like,” said the Chicago based consultant. “I also discovered the city has three publicly owned stages surrounding a linear public green space.”

What the city did not know was if any of this mattered to the local economy. Brewer and his team determined there was a direct correlation with the city’s investment in these spaces and economic return. They found there was a significant, measurable impact to cash registers, which more than offset the amount of operational investment in the venue. Since December 2011, the live music venue had generated 50,000 night time visits after 7 p.m.

To the mom and pop pizza shop, Steverino’s, each show generated $400 in new direct cash. New direct cash is a sale that would not occur except for the opportunity generated by the event. The team also noted the impact to perception from outside investors.

“Investment in tangible visible art says something about a community” noted Brewer. “It helps seal a perception.”

The city’s new Community Development Department is buzzing with activity as developers translate interest into actual projects. In the past six months Duluth has approved 596 units of single family detached, attached townhouse and multi-family housing along with 15 acres of new retail development. Significant among these projects is the 30 acre Sugarloaf Market being developed by partners Jeff Fuqua and Heather Correa of Fuqua Development.

“We have demanding standards in our housing and retail product offerings,” said Fuqua, an Atlanta based developer. “We are investing $94 million in Duluth.”

The mayor, council and the development community have fully embraced the concept of art as a growing part of community life. The evidence comes in several forms. Significant is the creation of a newly appointed Duluth Public Arts Commission and its recent solicitation to develop a Duluth Master Art Plan. The private sector created the Duluth Fine Arts League several years back to promote artists and art. The corporate community has also invested with visible contributions such as the public art piece known as “Ascension” and its accompanying interpretive parklet just dedicated in 2014. AGCO Corporation funded the large scale forged steel art piece while the city provided the land in the newly created roundabout.

The Alabama based Dreamland BBQ franchise has agreed to redevelop a 5,000 square foot warehouse in the historic retail section known as “The Block.”

“This is a significant investment for us in the center of Duluth,” said CEO Besty McAtee. “We see what they are doing down there and we want to be part of creating a destination driven entertainment district.” The company plans to add 1,500 square feet of space and be open by July 2015.

No one is more aware of the value of art than Owen as he looks over the newly completed music school in the basement of the Red Clay venue. A joint project between the Downtown Development Authority and the Duluth Fall Festival, the school is the newest location for the Gwinnett School of Music.

“We are calling this whole thing the Red Clay Music Foundry. I can’t say this has been the easiest thing I have ever done” mused Owen. “I knew this was a risk coming out here so far from my comfort zone. I did it because the city had a vision and they made me believe I could be successful here just like they do for all the businesses that invest in this city.”

Mayor Harris believes all cities have something that can be appreciated by others.

“I think cities in Georgia have something unique to offer that defines what their “art” is,” she said. “It takes a dedicated group of leaders willing to promote what is authentic about each place and to elevate its value for all to enjoy. That is our true strength and it is being translated into real investment with our Duluth standards."

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