Creative economy presents red-carpet opportunity
Current shortage of venues in Spokane leads to lack of performing-arts product
Marnie RorholmMay 25th, 2023
In recent comments to recipients of the Governor’s Arts & Heritage Awards at the Governor’s Mansion in Olympia, Washington Jay Inslee mentioned that the creative economy in Washington state generates more revenue than the Seattle Seahawks, Mariners, and Kraken combined.
Creative economy—which includes a diverse cluster of occupations that range from architecture to media to information technology to performing arts, and much more—is 10.8% of the state’s gross domestic product. That’s more than the sum total revenue of agriculture, forest products, and life sciences.
According to the National Association of State Arts Agencies, the creative economy in Washington state is a $73 billion industry, employing almost 190,000 residents. Of course, most of that economic benefit is happening on the state’s West Side.
Here in Eastern Washington, however, a similar dynamic is at work. The economic impact of Best of Broadway national tours is estimated at a half-billion dollars per year—more than Bloomsday and Hoopfest combined. Visit Spokane, which measures drivers of tourism in the county, tracks this transient version of professional theatre as by far the largest driver of room bookings in the entire region. “Hamilton” alone, and its patrons ancillary spending, boosted the economy to the tune of $20 million.
While the national tours, which are widely considered the highest production quality available in the region, generate great benefits for the hospitality and tourism industry, the majority of the ticket price for national tours leaves the region with the theatrical company staging the show. What if there were a local professional theatre company that created the production quality of the national tours and generated jobs, employing local artists, musicians, technicians, theatre education faculty, and staff?
The talent is here. But other than the First Interstate Center for the Arts—the Opera House to those of a certain age—this region is missing technologically advanced facilities in which to stage the type of performing arts that 21st century audiences want to pay to see.
It is unusual for a market the size of Spokane County to not have a large regional performing arts complex for locally produced professional theatre. A simple Google search shows that Tacoma has 17 distinct facilities for performing arts, Portland has 18, and Missoula has 20. Spokane County has only five or six. Because of this shortage of facilities, there is a proportional lack of product.
Southern Methodist University prepares an annual comprehensive study on arts vibrancy for all 3,100 counties in the U.S. and ranks them by percentile according to factors such as government support, socio-economic makeup, and other available leisure options including hotels, restaurants, and sports. According to the SMU study in 2022, Spokane County wasn’t even considered a small arts market compared to the rest of the country. Portland and Seattle were large, Missoula was medium, and Pendleton was categorized as small. Certainly, we all recognize large markets that have embraced the economic benefits of the entertainment industry—New York, L.A., Las Vegas, Nashville—but there is no reason that the Inland Northwest Region can’t reap these rewards as well.
In the Eastern Washington market, there is only one professional theatre company and educational conservatory for students in grades two to 12. Since its inception in 2016, Spokane Valley Summer Theatre has historically drawn one-third of its patrons and conservatory students from outside the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley, and 15% from out of state. This speaks to the many surrounding rural communities, with little or no access to professional performing arts. It illustrates their willingness to travel a fair distance and spend leisure dollars in our market to see a quality product. SVST leans into this demand, annually serving a market between Missoula, Montana, and Moses Lake, Washington. Growth was 238% over eight years, while performing as a summer-stock company, in a high-school theatre, during a pandemic, in a region where everyone goes to the lake.
Americans for the Arts cites that for every $1 spent on professional performing arts, local audience members spend an additional $23.44, and nonlocal audience members spend $47.57 over and above the cost of admission—an average of $32 per patron. In addition to the ticket price, audiences pay local sales tax for meals, concessions, and more. Nonlocal audiences additionally pay lodging tax for overnight stays. This revenue is returned directly to the regional community, stimulating our economy, and providing significant tax relief per household.
There is plenty of room in the local market for all types of performing arts. However, at the moment in Eastern Washington, there is no existing product in either production quality or ticket price, between the national tours and community theatre. The Idaho Central Spokane Valley Performing Arts Center, currently under construction at 13609 E. Mansfield, is a privately funded project that aims to fill that niche. It is scheduled to open in July 2024, drawing patrons from all along the Interstate 90 corridor.
Arts, culture, and design create jobs, boost and recover economies, and transition to an innovation-based economy. Abundant examples from other markets in Washington illustrate how arts, culture, and design can assist with economic growth. Such examples include: Creating a fast-growth, dynamic industry cluster; helping mature industries become more competitive; and delivering a better-prepared workforce.
It’s time to stop thinking of performing arts as charity and start thinking of it as industry.
The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies tells us just one professional performing arts organization in local communities doubles the chance that local businesses will be innovative and design integrated. And rural areas with innovative and design-integrated businesses recover faster from economic recessions, seeing much more growth in average weekly earnings.
The National Governor’s Association, in its report, Strategies for Creative Sector to Revitalize Rural Communities, mentions that the creative sector actually compliments other industries and can boost the efficacy of state economic development policies, partnerships, and plans.
Now, post-pandemic, is a unique opportunity to invest in the capacity and infrastructure of the arts for the good of the Inland Northwest region. Professional theatre companies are the transformative intersection of economic vitality, educational innovation, and culture.
An example from the past illustrates what is possible in the future. Fifty years ago, a group of ordinary businesspeople and concerned citizens cleaned up a key piece of land along the Spokane River, turned it into a community gem, and invited the world for Expo ’74. Part of that master plan was a large venue for the performing arts, then called The Washington state Pavilion Opera House.
These visionaries had extraordinary foresight, and their efforts have contributed significantly to the economic and cultural strength of our region for decades. In another 50 years, our children and grandchildren will hopefully still be reaping the benefits of today’s continued support and investment in the professional performing arts.