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Presentation highlights arts as an economic driver


September 27, 2019

Tom LaVenture/Daily Globe

Mercer resident Colleen Roeder, seated, talks about ideas with Land O'Lakes Arts Program Director Wendy Powalisz, center, and Board President Lynn Richie, prior to a Business Bites series event Wednesday at the Mercer Community Center.


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MERCER, Wis. - The arts has a larger economic impact than most people realize, according a Business Bites presentation Wednesday at the Mercer Community Center.

"The arts has a $9.7 billion annual impact on Wisconsin," said Lynn Ritchie, president of Land O' Lakes Arts Board (LOLA) and a member of the Wisconsin Arts Board.

Yet, Wisconsin ranks 48th in state funding for the arts, she said. Artists are drawn to Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula to visit and to live and there is an untapped opportunity, she said.

LOLA had an informal start after a strong response to a written survey sent out to the community.

"We sent out surveys to 99 people and we got 99 surveys back," said. "There 40 people at our very first meeting."

The success of LOLA is due in part to reaching out to the community to see what they wanted and needed, she said. It doesn't work as well for a passionate few to create something they think the community needs, she said.

Wendy Powalisz, LOLA program director, said the 11 year old nonprofit organization draws 4,000 people to town each year for more than 100 classes and 54 annual events in a community of 900 people.

"The community has embraced and supported LOLA," Powalisz said.

Start the conversation with the community about what they want to create, she said. It's about what is happening beyond the libraries and the schools, she said.

Many people are skilled in something and don't even think they are in the arts. They are people skilled in the fiber arts, kites, music, painting, photography and video, stained glass, ballroom dancing, weaving, writing, culinary or others who might enjoy teaching a class that people would attend.

Summer programs for kids are essential, she said.

The sooner kids are introduced to the arts, the better odds they have of improving in school, she said.

The two were introduced by Kelly Klein, coordinator of the Iron County Economic Development office, who organizes the Business Bites events. The arts are one of many components of the giant jigsaw puzzle of economic development, he said.

"Arts plays a big role in placemaking, which is creating spaces that make people want to be in your community, whether it's visiting or actually living in the community," Klein said.

The presentation also gaves exposure to what the arts can do for a community, he said. The goal of Business Bites is to float different ideas out there that people might use to help grow the economy.

Teresa Schmidt, director of the Mercer Public Library, said it was fascinating to hear about the success the Land O' Lakes community has had with the arts. The presentation resonated with Mercer residents who also want to diversify what is offered in the community and how to appeal to more people of all ages, interests and ability levels, she said.

"I think the arts can play a really big role in that," Schmidt said. "This whole series has been great. We like to try to provide information and useful resources for business whenever we can."

Michael Meyer, director of the Ironwood Chamber of Commerce, said he found the presentation enlightening and comprehensive. Most people think of the arts as just making things and that's a part of it but they presented the much bigger and inclusive picture of creative opportunities, he said.

"For LOLA to raise that kind of money to build and pay off a structure and hire full time employees shows a level of economic engagement that is substantial and has a big affect on a community," Meyer said.

The snowmobiles and ATVs are very visible activities that are considered a positive economic impact on the community, said Vic Ouimette, past president of Mercer Area Chamber of Commerce and current chair of the Iron County Economic Development Committee, and a member of the Human Services Board. The presentation reflects the importance of a diverse economic mix, as the silent sports, cross-country skiing, bicycling, and the trails may not be as visible in some respects but economically are "phenomenal" in what they bring into the community, he said.

"A lot of people don't understand the value of 'the arts', but there are so many things that kind of fly below the radar," Ouimette said.

Mercer township has the largest number of new resident starts than all the rest of Iron County combined and have for a number of years, Ouimette said. Those residents are mostly retirees and have taken to Fe University and the arts programs as things to do, he said.

"The three major drivers in Iron County are tourism, retirees and the timber industry," Ouimette said.

Tourism, according to the state, brings in $29 million a year in direct spending, he said. The Social Security Administration provides $31 million to Iron County residents each year, he said.

"That's a lot of money," Ouimette said. "That's a big economic driver."


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