I was fortunate to be invited this fall by Mike Williams, Fargo city commissioner, and Charley Johnson, president/CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, to take two trips as part of “Tours de Art and Parking.”

A group of about 35 traveled to see what Sioux Falls, S.D.; Lincoln, Neb.; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Grand Forks are doing with their public art initiatives and parking to stimulate economic development.

These trips were eye-opening in the sense that each of these communities has made serious investments in their public art – both traditional statuary and creative space – as a way to encourage downtown revitalization, economic growth and creative place-making.

While Lincoln and Sioux Falls each benefit from somewhat warmer climates, and Lincoln and Winnipeg are both significantly larger communities, all four locations seem to have not only determined that public art and inviting community locations will accomplish the revitalization goals. And they are quite a bit ahead of where we are in terms of funding them.

Sioux Falls’ downtown is full of public art sculptures that reside on gorgeous stone pedestals. The public votes on the pieces throughout the year, and the winning sculpture is purchased by the city as part of its permanent collection. A variety of businesses sponsor a piece of art to be placed outside their storefronts and often end up purchasing it.

Vandalism is not a major issue anymore; the city seems to have outgrown that juvenile tendency.

Sioux Falls has also completely restored their riverway. While we don’t have the same wild beauty at our river as they do at The Falls, we could certainly stand to create a more attractive public space that draws the community to spend time enjoying nature, the farmers markets and all the public art and locations for arts programming. Trails, winter programming and more make the riverfront a place where people gather year-round.

One of the things that impressed me most was the way these communities used winter as a backdrop and a benefit to arts programming. Too often – and I am guilty of this, too – we bemoan our terrible weather and hunker in for months at a time. 

That’s not going to get rid of winter. Instead, we could take a cue from Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur and create an outdoor public event to look forward to in winter.

The weather in Winnipeg is seriously colder than ours, and yet, for 10 days thousands of people wait in outdoor lines to see live music, winter fashion shows, fiddling contests and area movies.

Last winter, a heated tent was placed in the middle of the frozen river near The Forks, and people walked a half-mile from their cars to enjoy a $150 prix-fixe meal. This ran for three weekends, and twice as many people were on the waiting list than there was room to seat.

Grand Forks has made significant investments in the green spaces around the river. They manage more land than all of Central Park in New York, and their thoughtful investment has created outdoor spaces that encourage people to gather for a variety of reasons, including art-making, such as Rockin’ on the Red, an outdoor music festival.

All four of these communities have made a serious financial investment on the front end to ensure that the environmental elements of their cities are managed and utilized to the best of their ability. Public art intentionally pops up all over.

All four of these communities have seen their investments come back multi-fold. Each city is better, more vibrant and poised to continue to grow today because of the foresight they had regarding thoughtful public space with public art and creating and utilizing spaces for the arts to flourish.

And, as I have written in this space time and time again, when the arts flourish, communities thrive.

The arts are often the impetus that causes independent retail shops, restaurants, coffee shops and more to invest in the area.

Take a look at Broadway in Fargo. Artistic pillars like Plains Art Museum, the Hotel Donaldson, Zandbroz, the Spirit Room and Gallery 4, who have all been downtown for a number of years, helped begin the renaissance we could only dream of 10 years ago.

I applaud the city of Fargo and all the commissioners who made one or both of these trips. I appreciate that arts leaders were included, along with engineers, architects, investors and more in these fact-finding trips.

There’s so much good momentum surrounding the arts in our community right now, and we are poised to take some very bold steps. These trips taught us that being bold pays off. Here’s to boldly going where others have already successfully gone.

Dayna Del Val, executive director of The Arts Partnership, writes a monthly column for Variety. For more information on the arts, go to http://theartspartnership.net.

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