When Wood River Valley residents go to see a live performance or an arts exhibit, they’re probably not thinking about the economic impact they’re creating.
But, the money spent at a restaurant beforehand and on the tickets creates tangible economic benefits beyond just the performers on stage, said Randy Cohen, the vice president for research and policy for the organization Americans for the Arts.
Cohen was one of three speakers to address an audience at Sun Valley Economic Development’s annual Economic Summit on Wednesday.
The conference at the Sun Valley Inn attracted dozens of professionals, business and community leaders, and elected officials from throughout Blaine County.
Cohen delivered his lecture in the morning, and honed in on the positive effects a robust arts and culture scene has on the economy of the Wood River Valley.
Cohen cited a study by Americans for the Arts that examined 341 study regions in all 50 states in 2015, including each city in Blaine County.
The study found that the nonprofit arts industry in the U.S. drives about $166 billion in economic activity annually. In the Wood River Valley, the study found that arts and culture accounted for $29.3 million in economic spending.
That breaks down to $13.8 million by organizations, and $15.5 million by audiences.
The ripple effects extend beyond a theater, Cohen noted. For example, a program for a performance requires a graphic designer, a printer, a writer, an editor and other skilled workers.
Stopping for dinner before a show provides money to restaurants and helps waiters, cooks, owners and the producers and distributors who supply food and beverages, Cohen said.
“Arts are a big industry,” Cohen said. “They drive jobs. When we support the arts, we’re investing in an industry. It’s keeping our hard-earned discretionary dollars right here in town.”
Breaking down the study further, Cohen said the typical attendee in the Wood River Valley spends about $68 per person per event, not including tickets. The study found 118 arts-related businesses in the valley, which employed 307 people. That accounted for 6.9 percent of all businesses and 2.5 percent of all employees.
He said the arts and culture organizations need support from private donors and local governments in Blaine County.
“Small investment, big return—that’s the arts,” Cohen said. “We’re not pouring these dollars down a black hole of goodness.”
Mark Kane, director of community planning and design for the SE Group, spoke next. Kane addressed future trends for mountain resort communities that valley residents will need to keep an eye on.
His organization has worked on more than 2,000 ski area projects around the world, and he spoke to a disconnect that can occur between the mountain resort and the community below. He noted that a long-term plan for Snowmass, Colo., barely mentioned the ski resort nearby.
He called it an invisible “Maginot Line” between the community and the resort, which builds up over distrust, disagreement and controversy over time.
He spoke to four factors that communities and resorts should work on: Ski area capacity and community capacity, housing, transportation and recreation.
The capacity issue refers to the volume of people that can be accommodated going up ski lifts and coming down on trails, compared to how many people can find lodging in town, or a place to eat, or entertainment once they’re finished skiing. He said the average skier spends 87 minutes on the mountain each outing.
“Eighty-seven minutes of people skiing and then you have the rest of the day,” Kane said.
An important consideration is the amount of parking at the resort and in town, and making sure they align with the transportation methods each provide. “Are we building too many parking lots?” Kane asked.
He advocated for increasing the supply of middle-income housing near the resort, and didn’t fault homeowners for renting their properties on short-term rental websites such as Airbnb.
Kane spoke of governments granting developers flexibility if they propose a major project of hundreds of units. One phase could be developed using a particular type spelled out in a planned-unit development agreement, such as single-family homes. But if the market shifts, Kane said developers may want to pursue another housing type, such as townhomes, in subsequent phases.
“That’s very interesting,” Kane said. “We’re tracking that. The focus is on middle-income housing—things that people with families want.”
Skier counts down
Ralf Garrison, of Inntopia/Destimetrics, was the third speaker, and addressed long-term trends in the number of skier days at resorts. He noted that nationally, the number of skier days today is equivalent to the number in the late 1980s.
Ski resorts gained large increases in the 1990s and 2000s, but fell during and after the economic recession.
“We gained for a while but we fell back down,” Garrison said.
He said marketing organizations and resorts should tailor their efforts to shoulder seasons, such as September and October, when occupancy typically dips, rather than try to build on the existing peaks of mid-summer and the week after Christmas.
“It’s not fair to ask the lift ticket to do all the work on your economy,” Garrison said.