In Our View: Upping City's 'Funk Factor'

Vancouver would be wise to establish an arts district to spur economic growth

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A decade ago, in a series of stories that ran over four days, The Columbian called it “Vancouver’s Funk Factor.” The idea was an examination of how the arts and an economy bolstered by creativity can be a boon to a region. At the time, reporter Jonathan Nelson wrote, “A growing body of studies say to really breathe life back into a city, drop your eyes from the towering edifices and look at the people — specifically, creative people. National studies show jobs are created and economies are stimulated by supporting the arts and a creative workforce.”

That notion remains unchanged. Even through a difficult recession that has left cities languishing and residents attempting to stay afloat economically, the idea that growth can be spurred by the creative class is one that is worthy of pursuit. With that in mind, the Vancouver City Council appears poised to adopt a resolution that would create a Vancouver Arts District in the heart of the city, ranging roughly from Sixth Street to 15th Street, and from Esther Street to Fort Vancouver Way.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Lee Rafferty, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association. “It’s been talked about for a long time. It hasn’t really gone away, because it’s a good idea.”

The price has not been defined, but the idea would have local galleries covering the cost to create and maintain an arts district website; the downtown association providing promotion of the district; and the city paying for signs at various entry points to the district and new toppers for street signs. The practical impact could have the district easily paying for itself by generating increased revenue for established businesses and by attracting new arts-related outlets.

The benefits of an arts district can be explained in a rather inartistic fashion — with cold, hard numbers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, arts and culture in 2011 accounted for 3.2 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product, which was greater than the estimated value of travel and tourism.

That’s not to say that focusing on the arts is a panacea. A strong economy still is dependent upon manufacturing and commerce, and no city can succeed without a broad base of diverse industries. But, in Vancouver and elsewhere, manufacturers have spent the past couple decades fleeing downtowns for outlying areas, and the inner cities that have been able to thrive largely have done so on the basis of a creative economy. Portland and Seattle have been among the national leaders in cultivating such an economy, and smaller cities in the region — such as Tacoma and Eugene — also have tapped into the West Coast ethos that gives the arts a position of primacy.

On top of that, as The Columbian wrote editorially in 2004 in reference to “Vancouver’s Funk Factor”: “Of greater importance, this increased attention to arts and culture can improve our quality of life. Definitions of ‘funk’ and ‘funky’ vary, but we all should agree that the words describe new ways of folding more fun and energy into our community.”

Vancouver’s leaders over the past two decades have done a fine job of rejuvenating a once-moribund downtown. Esther Short Park, which not long ago was symbolic of urban plight, has become a hub of activity as the frequent host of cultural and artistic events. The buildings surrounding the park have signaled that Vancouver is open for business. Supporting the arts and cultural endeavors is one way to attract such business, and the city council would be wise to establish a district for that purpose.