Lee’s Summit is one of many cities across the nation where leaders hope the arts will be an economic engine to produce a high quality of life and add jobs.
In Missouri, the river towns of Clarksville, Hannibal and Louisiana promote a 50-mile corridor where tourists can visit galleries and restaurants. Lexington is working on an arts-driven revitalization project. Kansas City’s Crossroads art district is renowned.
Members of the Lee’s Summit Art Council last year visited Paducah, Ky. where an aggressive project started a decade ago. That town provided free housing and work places for artists in its once crime-ridden downtown.
Now the town of about 25,000 has rows of galleries, dozens and dozens of working artists and a $44 million performing arts center that serves a 100-mile region, plus a National Quilt Museum that gets 40,000 visitors a year from all over the world.
Councilmember Allan Gray says the point isn’t that Lee’s Summit should try to copy Paducah, but that it can benefit from the smaller community’s example.
“They had a vision,” Gray said. “That’s really the key of what Lee’s Summit is doing, a compass point, if you will, for all ships to sail for.”
The city needs to find its niche in promoting the arts or it will miss out on quality of life that will help it stay competitive, he said.
Gray said the arts provides an avenue for linking people in the community, crossing political or other boundaries while giving them a common, shared experience, building relationships, leading to new ideas and creativity.
“It creates a common dialogue for a community to get working together on other projects that may be totally unrelated to the arts,” Gray said.
To jump-start its arts motor, Lee Summit is proposing taking a first step in completing a cultural plan adopted by the City Council in 2007 and a facilities plan calling for the eventual construction of a performing arts center downtown.
On April 2 the city will ask voters to approve a nearly $2.9 million bond issue to finish the Legacy Park amphitheater, renovate a historic 1939 post office on West Main to be used for the Lee’s Summit Historical Society Museum and build an outdoor festival space, including a stage, to the rear of the museum.
In a separate question, officials are asking voters to approve $4.6 million for reconstruction of Orchard Street and adding paved shoulders for Pryor Road.
The two bond issues are linked by a common need for preserving and improving existing neighborhoods as Lee’s Summit matures, said Brad Cox, a Lee’s Summit business owner and co-chair of Foundations for our Future, a campaign committee formed to pass the bonds.
The festival plaza and amphitheater will contribute to the continued success of downtown and community groups like Lee’s Summit Symphony and Summit Theatre Group.
Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street Inc.’s Friday night concert series is evidence the community is ready to support cultural arts initiatives, he said.
The events have gradually grown to where during summer each Friday is booked at Howard Station Park and there’s a waiting list and the event is outgrowing the park.
“It’s a huge success,” Cox said. “The community is saying we’re ready for this.”
The bonds would be repaid at the debt-service levy, so there’s no tax increase. Residents would give up gradual tax roll backs as debt owed by the city is paid off, but the earliest that would begin is expected in 2019, and be between $2.85 and $5 decrease on a house worth $150,000.
The executive boards of the Lee’s Summit Chamber of Commerce, the Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council and Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street have endorsed the issues.
Jim Devine said the “creative class” and arts bring to the table another piece that can help keep Lee’s Summit an attractive place to live and do business.
“There is a cool factor,” Devine said. “It does give you a sizzle.”
The city’s Emerald Isle Parade, rivaling Kansas City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, the kite festival held at the Longview campus of Metropolitan Community College, are but two examples of the potential, Devine said.
“It’s proven we can be a destination and create a critical mass,” Devine said. “This bond issue takes us to the next level; it shows the community believes in itself.”
Trisha Drape, executive director of Downtown Lee’s Summit Main Street Inc., said her organization sees passage of the bonds as “huge for the future of downtown Lee’s Summit.”
Right now visitors have sort of a “mental divide” created by the railroad tracks that bisect downtown at Main Street, she said.
If they’re shopping or dining on Third Street east of Main there’s a tendency to stop at the tracks and creating the festival space and museum on the west side will give them a reason to go west.
“We want to encourage people and diners out for entertainment to experience the entire downtown,” Drape said.
Gray, who is also chairman of the Kansas City Arts Council, said arts, from non-profits fine arts, or the design professionals in industry, contribute substantially to the economy. Nationally it is a $135 billion economic driver annually and generated $278 million in the Kansas City region in 2004, according to a study completed for the council.
And the facilities will eventually help bring performances by high-quality artists to town, such as the Coterie Theatre and Kansas City Ballet.
“It will help create a sense of place for Lee’s Summit,” Gray said. “We want to be known as a creative community, with that moniker we can attract the best and brightest, and we’ll be able to sell our community.”