CNCounty News

The arts have the power to transform counties

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Key Takeaways

Art can be more than “just art.” It can help counties handle recovery in a variety of ways, according to Larry Nelson, Waukesha County, Wis. supervisor and chair of NACo’s Arts and Culture Commission. 

“It’s what we call ‘arts and’— so ‘arts and the environment, arts and economic development, arts and community cohesion,’” Nelson said Sunday when the group’s members heard from three different counties about their experiences with the arts.

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Three examples of counties utilizing the arts to solve local challenges are Hawaii County, Hawaii in its pursuit of “regenerative tourism,” Potter County, Pa. attempting to attract young people to the rural area and Greenbrier County, W.Va. in its efforts to tackle the opioid crisis. 

All participated in NACo’s Creative Counties Placemaking Challenge in partnership with Americans for the Arts, which tasked counties with populations of less than 150,000 to use the arts to solve a problem.

Hawaii County, Hawaii

Hawaii County, Hawaii is launching “Revitalize Pohoiki,” aligning art with the Hawaii Island Destination Management Action Plan to educate tourists about the importance of maintaining Hawaii’s environment. They plan to do so through cultural workshops, signs and art including a rock sculpture, in the Puna district’s natural area. 

“We are designing a creative and educational experience that … balances residential access and visitor curiosity,” said Hawaii County Councilmember Ashley Kierkiewicz. “The signs we’re designing and producing are a celebration of Pohoiki — its stories, its people, its culture, its assets … We want folks to know it’s not just about Pohoiki, but about taking care to ensure long-term sustainability, celebrating what feeds us, while educating about the need for managing our precious resources."

Potter County, Pa.

In another example of how the arts can bring about change in a community, county officials heard from Potter County, Pa. Commissioner Paul Heimel.

At increasing rates, he explained, young people are moving away from Potter County. The 2020 census found that the county’s median age was about a decade older than the national average, which proved to not only be an issue in attracting tourists, but also resulted in a lack of people needed for critical services, like volunteers for the fire and ambulance service. 

Research conducted by the county discovered that at close to the top of the list for what young people were looking for in a rural area was a “vibrant community,” something that the arts could help solve. 

“There was a time in my life when I seriously questioned whether it made any sense for tax dollars to be used to support the arts, I’ll admit,” said Heimel. “But my eyes have been opened — I’ve learned there’s a tremendous evidence-based case to be made to invest in the arts.” 

Heimel said he’s working to create an arts and culture center in a 750-acre state park located in the county that’s currently not in use, as it was previously a ski area but doesn’t have enough snow anymore to function due to climate change.

Greenbrier County, W.Va.

Greenbrier County, W.Va.'s Opioid Recovery Project is connecting women receiving treatment for substance use disorder with the arts. The project is a partnership with Seed Sower, an organization in the county that provides supervised housing and recovery support. 

“We know that in addressing mental health, addressing substance use disorder, art is a wonderful way to be able to help with focus, with touch and just an overall better lifestyle,” said Greenbrier County Commissioner Tammy Tincher. “…Our goal is to bring an opportunity to those in a way that more than likely would not be given to them and hope that it will push forward their recovery and create a better community, a better county and hopefully have a small impact on the opioid epidemic.”

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