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Arts and culture strengthen communities, spur economic development and attract tourism

Oct 27, 2020

More than 120 representatives from 50 communities across the state gathered online Friday to discuss how to use local arts and culture to strengthen communities, spur economic development and attract tourism.

Leaders from Iowa Great Places and Iowa Cultural & Entertainment Districts met virtually during the inaugural Iowa Creative Places Exchange. The event was organized by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, to help leaders make the most of cultural assets through a strategy called “creative placemaking.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds welcomed the participating leaders by discussing how the arts drive innovation and cultural vitality, especially in small towns.

“Our state’s Great Places and Cultural and Entertainment District programs are the backbone of our state’s overall community-building and tourism strategy,” Reynolds said. “It’s these programs that challenge local leaders to build on the unique character that makes Iowa’s communities like no other place in the world.”

Chris Kramer, who directs the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, challenged leaders to build culturally vibrant places to live, work and play.

”Iowans take pride in their communities and understand how important it is to promote the authentic qualities that make them unique,” she said. “The Iowa Department of Affairs’ creative-placemaking programs help communities build upon their strong identity and unique sense of place to attract new residents and visitors.”

During Friday’s event, Jeremy Liu, an award-winning artist and community planner from Oakland, California, focused his keynote address on two key points:

  • Creative placemaking is key to community development. Good things happen when art, history and culture are intentionally incorporated into planning and design. Revealing and preserving local character creates an authentic sense of place that attracts visitors and new residents.
  • Make communities more inclusive. Civic leaders can and should use arts and culture to strengthen community bonds and bring partners from diverse sectors to the planning table.

Liu’s presentation is available online.

Jill Ackerman, president of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, said the Iowa Creative Places Exchange offered her a chance to exchange ideas with leaders from other communities.

“We generate our own ideas, but we also look to other communities to get inspiration and pull out the parts that make sense for us,” she said.

Ackerman is working on a project in Marion, an Iowa Great Place, that will enhance an underutilized park with an ice-skating rink, public art that doubles as playground equipment, and a performance stage.

Cindy Bruhn, LeClaire’s tourism manager, said her community wants to extend its Iowa Cultural & Entertainment District along the Mississippi River with sidewalk improvements and a boat launch to make the area a year-round destination.

Friday’s event “let us see what other communities are doing and hear about their success stories,” she said. “The state’s programs are great and what we get in return is great. I’d encourage any of Iowa’s small towns to get involved because they may not realize how they can really leverage their assets through a partnership with the state.”

In Council Bluffs, Danna Kehm, the CEO of Pottawattamie Arts, Culture & Entertainment, is building on the successful development of the Hoff Family Arts & Culture Center, a multi-use venue that opened in February and closed a few weeks later during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our project resulted from a lot of community visioning and surveys that asked what our community wanted, and that really helped us understand how we were going to move forward,” she said. “Once the Covid pandemic is resolved, we expect to have 50,000 people visit our space each year as the cornerstone of arts and culture for our community and a driver for tourism and commerce in Council Bluffs.”

Iowa Great Places

The Iowa Great Places program recognizes communities that cultivate the unique and authentic qualities of their local places – neighborhoods, districts or regions – and make them attractive places to live and work. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has invested nearly $21 million in a total of 44 designated Iowa Great Places since the program’s creation in 2006. Funding for the program comes from the Iowa Legislature through an annual appropriation from the Rebuild Iowa Infrastructure Fund.

Iowa Cultural & Entertainment Districts

The Iowa Cultural & Entertainment District program designates areas that are hubs of cultural activity through a concentration of arts facilities, creative businesses and gathering places. Iowa currently has 13 designated districts.

The Iowa Great Places and Iowa Cultural & Entertainment District programs are administered by the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. More information is available at

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.