Arts Council relocates, sets sights on revitalization

Aug. 30, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

The Lee County Arts Council has moved to a new, more visible location downtown in the Steele Street Mall.

And with officials saying the new digs will help them do better at funding the groups they support — Temple Theatre, the Brush and Palette Club, Heart of Carolina Jazz Orchestra and more — the move could be a good sign for the county’s tourism industry, much of which is centered around such groups.

Spending on tourism in North Carolina rose by 5.4 percent in 2012, according to government data released earlier this month — but Lee County’s tourist spending lagged behind, rising by 1.8 percent. The county’s total tourism spending was about $65 million, good for 50th place out of the state’s 100 counties.

“I think that points to the need for us to focus on that sector of our economy,” Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce President Bob Joyce said. “I think we’re leaving something on the table.”

So as the Lee County Arts Council clears out its old space in the Carolina Artists Colony and above Shops of Steele Street, consolidating in the old Ken’s Records space in the Steele Street Mall with a goal of opening sometime in September, they’re hoping to help increase some of the county’s focus on the arts.

“We’ve really tried hard to be the backbone of some of the things going on in Lee County,” Joann Thaxton, president of the council, said Thursday.

“We naturally want to have storefront to show off what we have and be open when people are here ... and to get more people staying downtown,” she said. “You know, coming downtown is one thing. But getting them to stay is another.”

Thaxton recently moved to Sanford from New Orleans, where she worked in various capacities with the arts, tourism and downtown. She said the number-one thing tourists want in a downtown is to be able to walk between entertainment, food and shopping, and that Sanford can offer that. She added that by moving the Arts Council offices to the Steele Street Mall, the group hopes to set off a chain reaction of revitalization.

“I say, let us rejuvenate this area into an arts area,” Thaxton said. “I’d love it to be an arts incubator, with all sorts of shows and displays.”

According to the state, 3.4 percent of overnight tourists in North Carolina in 2012 visited art galleries — more than engaged in other activities like golf, wine tasting, camping, theme parks and sporting or racing events. Joyce, pointing to untapped potential in Lee County’s natural features, as well as its man-made attractions, said more could be done to both develop and promote tourism in the area in addition to the arts.

“We’ve got such an active soccer league here, I don’t think it would take a big boost to get people to come here and play,” he said, noting that whenever his son’s travel soccer team went elsewhere for tournaments, there were hundreds of families from all over who were paying for hotel rooms, meals, gas and more.

“We [also] don’t have an active river guide business,” Joyce added later. “There’s a business opportunity for somebody in connection with the Deep River. And I think if we would help somebody by focusing on some marketing,” the business could in turn lure visitors who would spend money on more than just that one activity.

And finally, he said, tourism isn’t all leisure spending. Lee County has the buildings and lodging to accommodate business tourists, he said, and should be taking more advantage of that attribute.

The N.C. Department of Commerce has noted that tourism isn’t just helpful for individual businesses or attractions. In 2012, tourism spending led to more than $970 million in tax revenue for the state and nearly $580 million in tax revenue for individual counties.

“State and local tax revenues from travel to Lee County amounted to $4.92 million,” the Department of Commerce states on its website. “This represents a $83.23 tax saving to each county resident.”