Next week, Lawrenceville’s Aurora Theatre will open its 20th season with a production of the musical Memphis. The theatre, which was founded by Anthony Rodriguez and Ann-Carol Pence in 1996, moved from Duluth to to a renovated 100 year old church on the Lawrenceville town square in 2007. With half a dozen major shows each year, a separate smaller series on a more intimate stage, acting classes for students and adults, and an apprentice company, the venue hosted more than 600 events and attracted more than 76,000 visitors last season.
What many don’t know, however, is that the theatre is the single largest economic force in Lawrenceville. A March, 2014 study estimated that the theatre has a 3.244 million dollar impact on Gwinnett County.
Can an investment in the arts be a driving force in economic development? The Georgia Council on the Arts and the Georgia Municipal Association think so. The two groups teamed up in June to produce a research report titled Leveraging Public Investment in the Arts. The report uses case studies from cities as varied as Blue Ridge, Athens, Clarkston and Thomasville to illustrate how the arts are being used to drive economic development.
From the mid-1980s through 2008, state funding for the arts ranged between 2 and 4.5 million annually. That number dropped considerably as a result of recession belt tightening. The 2016 budget passed by the General Assembly increased arts funding from $600,000 to $900,000. But, that’s only six cents per person, compared to 63 cents per person in South Carolina and $1.07 pe4r person in Tennessee. That puts Georgia in last place.
In an 11 Alive story, State Senator P.K. Martin, whose district includes the Aurora, says he supports additional arts funding. “As Georgians, I don’t think that we should be last,” Martin said. “I don’t think you’ll see us leading the pack either, but I think we can be competitive, especially with the states around us.”
But Governor Deal wants to make sure there is a consistent source of funding. “The revenue of our state continues to grow. That’s one of the reason we put so much focus on job creation – that’s the way you get your revenue up. When you get your revenue up, you have the ability to put more money in things like the arts.”
One way to increase arts funding is the model used in a seven county region centered on Denver, Colorado. There, the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District assesses a one tenth of one percent sales tax to fund arts programs ranging from major museums to smaller districts. That voter-approved tax provides around $40 million annually in arts funding. The city of Atlanta pushed for such a measure during the 2013 legislative session, estimating that between $11 and $12 million per year could be raised to support the arts in the city.
Disclosure: I volunteer time maintaining portions of the Aurora’s website.