Opinion: A local vision for arts, culture and economics

Staff file photo / The owners of Local Coffee of East Ridge, Danny Lance and Debbie Lance, are shown in their coffee shop and venue on Aug. 30, 2019.

Creating community is a mission that takes passion, persistence and personal commitment. I did not expect to experience all of that when I dropped by Local Coffee of East Ridge on Ringgold Road. I'd heard about meetings there from friends and thought I'd check out their local book-signing event. I soon discovered that it's also the center for the East Ridge Creative Arts nonprofit. Memories came rushing back to me of how I designed my master's degree in Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago to focus on the economic impact of arts and culture on a community.

Those memories blossomed as I met the local writers who were sharing their work: Reggie Broach, Scott Marshall, Barbara Tucker, Devon Eriksen and Angela Carswell. Repurposing this building previously owned by the Salvation Army, the owners have given East Ridge an arts and culture hub. It has an art gallery and an auditorium stage for performances, not only for ArtBeat and professional musicians, but also for school choirs, drama groups, graduation ceremonies for local kindergarteners and families. The True Life Church meets there as does the Business Network International. And then there's coffee!

When I studied arts and culture urban planning in the early 1980s, I was addressing a theme of economic development that was rarely discussed. And an urban planning master's degree with this focus did not exist. The focus was usually on athletic facilities, like a stadium, and the economic impact of bringing newcomers to a neighborhood. Visitors would attend games, go to restaurants, bars and shops. The jobs and revenue generated could revitalize the area.

Arts and culture investments do this too, but they also preserve and magnify the legacy of the past, educate leaders of the future, and give current residents a reason to participate. This is what I discussed with the owners of the Local Coffee of East Ridge. Yes, it's great that the edge of town has grown with the development of Camp Jordan and its athletic assets. But this other side of town will inspire and involve the residents in equally important ways.

Talking with the owners, Danny and Debbie Lance, the inspiration was obvious. This arts and culture hub is emerging as a result of their determination and energy. Danny, a pastor, musician and past president of the East Ridge Chamber of Commerce, sang in his school's choir and then in Tennessee's all-state choir.

The number of East Ridge students accepted in the all-state choir is down by 50%. East Ridge High School now features construction-related courses and attracts students from around the county. Adjustments must be made given that priority, plus students speaking 26 different languages. There's little time for arts education.

The Lances' mission includes providing performance space and a summer arts academy that augments what schools can offer. Danny wants them to know that famous musicians like Ben Hampton grew up in East Ridge. Newer generations aren't aware of artists such as Hampton and can't imagine a path to achieving similar success. Time to inspire to aspire!

The vision includes developing future artists but goes beyond that. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that Tennessee employs 87,408 workers in cultural industries who earned more than $7.2 billion in wages and benefits. The East Ridge community hasn't benefited from this kind of economic development previously. Fortunately, the Lances are providing a blueprint for arts and culture economic development. Have you checked out what's happening in your community?

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at [email protected].