Spencer is a community on the rise. Faced with the same challenges as many other cities of this size, the city has invested in thinking critically about what makes their place unique and what investments can be made now for long-term success. Encouragingly, Arts and Culture have emerged as one of the community’s most treasured assets, from the numerous arts organizations to the Clay County Fair to a strong library with a cat known around the world. The arts and culture organizations in Spencer are led by an energetic cohort of young leaders – this alone sets Spencer apart from many other places.
Recognizing not only the strength of the arts but also the importance of arts and culture in creating a unique sense of place, the Spencer Steering Committee came together to reflect on both the strengths and areas of improvement for the city’s cultural community. As Riverfront development, future economic development, and big ideas from an energized city staff and city council take shape, the arts and culture have an incredibly important role in telling the story of what makes Spencer such a unique place to visit and live in Northwest Iowa.
Collaboration – among local organizations and their boards; between nonprofits, artists, and the city; and between different sectors including economic and business development, real estate, and local champions – is the key to a successful story, and this plan is the first step towards building systems for collaboration.
This plan would not be possible without the visionary leadership of the Spencer Steering Committee, the Spencer City Council, Mayor Kevin Robinson, and City Manager Amanda Mack.
At the core of successful community planning efforts, engaged residents of diverse backgrounds come together to define a vision, develop goals, and identify measurable objectives to ensure their vision becomes a reality. In Spencer, the Steering Committee represented a specific cross-sector of the community, including arts nonprofit leaders, elected officials, local arts supporters and champions, and representatives of other community and business groups, with many Committee members falling into several of those categories. The framework established by the Steering Committee in initial conversations consisted of some working assumptions of the best path forward for this plan:
- Spencer has an existing reputation as an arts and culture hub in northwest Iowa: from the historic district of Grand Avenue to the Art Deco architecture and the city’s designation of one of the first Cultural Districts in the state of Iowa, the work done by current and former community leaders provided a solid cultural foundation on which this plan can build.
- This foundation is solid, but community members of all backgrounds agreed there is opportunity for improvement. From increasing the types and frequency of events to better marketing of the existing offerings, the consensus was a need for identifying the types of catalytic projects that would enable Spencer to firmly establish itself as a cultural city – or, as we often heard in conversation, to “take it to the next level.’
- Encouragingly, the Steering Committee expressed a desire to see more opportunities for collaboration and working together. This is not a given in any community, and the ability of the Steering Committee to understand we are all in this together is a unique asset. This collaborative spirit guides the following action plan, and residents of all backgrounds should take pride in knowing this spirit is the key to unlocking the full potential of arts and culture in Spencer.
Through extensive interviews, market research, and community visioning sessions with community members ranging from business leaders to Spencer High School students, residents generated ideas that led to the creation of this action plan, including building a framework for additional programming in the future. What we heard from community members of all backgrounds was a desire for increased arts and culture programming and a concerted effort to better support and market existing organizations, events, and local artists. The following plan is designed to kickstart many of these ideas and, once implemented, will act as a catalyst for the entire Spencer community and neighboring areas.
*full visioning results are available in Appendix A.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The following plan is the result of several rounds of revisions and important conversations with the Steering Committee. The first draft of this plan centered around a new creative space which would include performance, education, and potential artist studio space along with a new restaurant. This approach answered many of the needs identified in the Community Visioning sessions, from new dining options to a greater range of cultural programming in Spencer. Two issues were raised by the Committee: one, the location of this facility; and two, a concern that a new entity would introduce additional competition for nonprofit funding and program support in the community.
Based on that feedback and new direction from City officials, the second version of this plan detailed both a new creative facility and the formation of the Spencer Arts District, a vehicle for greater collaboration and shared marketing and administrative support for local arts and heritage groups in the District. The facility would act as a revenue generator for the District as well as home to new programs identified in the Community Visioning sessions. This version was also met with concern, again around a potential space and its impact on existing nonprofits. In addition, committee members did not believe the timing for any capital campaign was right.
From that additional feedback, we created this version of the plan, which focuses specifically on the formation of the Spencer Arts District as a framework to support and sustain the participating organizations and increase arts and culture programming in Spencer. Long-term, we still believe the creation of a facility is very important to the growth of the arts in Spencer and for the arts to lead the charge for greater redevelopment of and investment in the downtown area. What follows is a plan in which short term goals will help elevate the visibility of existing arts and culture and provide a consistent method of collaboration and communication between the existing cultural organizations, city officials, local artists, and local business leaders.