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March 22, 2006

The Art of Community

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Quality of life issues, including, but certainly not limited to, growth and sprawl, traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, art and cultural opportunities, and local community employment are on the minds of citizens throughout Maryland.

This is especially true of a unique new coalition evolving between the "newcomers" and the "natives" in many of the rural areas of Maryland - that have been the destination of desire for so many exurbanites (newcomers) in the last decade.

As the initial euphoria of an exurbanite continues to deteriorate into the reality-quagmire of growth-management issues, staggering mortgages, mind-numbing commutes, overcrowded schools, escalating gasoline prices and sky-rocketing home heating bills, adjustments are on the horizon for many.

Sprinkle in for seasoning some tension between the folks who have lived in our rural utopia for generations, and the new folks, who, now that they live in a house on what was once a farm, rail against growth and clamor for an adequate say in local government.

For many, the average work week is longer than the world of Upton Sinclair at the dawn of the 20th century. An hour-and-a-half hour drive in the morning, a long day on the job and an even longer commute home, add up to life style of get-up, commute, work, commute, sleep and repeat with little family time and a diminished quality of life.

It helps if you keep a picture of the spouse, the kids, and the big friendly fluffy family dog on the dashboard of the SUV, and maybe a daylight picture of your mega-house, to remind you why you moved.

Equally wearisome is the identity-less monotony of contemporary suburban sprawl and retail and commercial areas that have neither civic-design identity nor link local citizens to a common past. Many folks, who have been living here for generations, are also clamoring for more quality of life in the face of all the changes.

What are the solutions? Fortunately, by working together, there are many more remedies than problems, but it's going to take some teamwork.

Part of the challenge is to endure the years necessary for the different demographics to socialize, gather a shared history, and knit into a sense of community. This happens either by getting to know each other at a school event, kids' soccer game, civic service organization, local house of worship or arts and cultural center.

If the only way these two groups ever see each other is at the local anti-growth public hearing, folks will have a difficult time getting to know each other as anything but the evil opponent.

Hopefully both groups will soon recognize that they want the same thing, and that can only happen by sharing a history of coming together.

Certainly one good solution is a renewed emphasis on local community employment, so that folks don't have to commit 15 hours a week commuting. Many are beginning to understand that these excruciating commutes are weakening the family unit and eating at the fabric of the community. Those 15-plus hours commuting are better spent with family or interacting in the local community.

An October 17 Business Week article put it best: "As the exurbs take root and evolve into communities in their own right, more new jobs are likely to find their way to these outer areas. In many U.S. labor markets where skilled workers are in short supply, exurbanites will likely get relief as more companies move operations closer to the outlying areas where workers live or encourage more telecommuting."

Fortunately, natives and newcomers are increasingly finding common ground in a renewed emphasis on local arts and cultural centers and programming.

This search for quality of life is starting to have a pronounced economic impact and is reflected in government support for public-private partnerships for the arts.

On the Maryland state level, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr., announced new funding for the arts on January 10. In his press release, he said, "The arts serve as both a growing economic engine and a vital part of our outstanding quality of life in Maryland. The Ehrlich Administration is proud to make new investments to help Maryland's arts organizations and artists grow and thrive."

Whether it is a local acting group, a photography club, a children's chorus, a community band or programming at the Weinberg Center, the arts build a sense of community identity and pride. Arts programs and cultural events add to our sense of community and quality of life by bringing people together for a positive shared experience.

Arts and cultural programs provide quality of life values to a family oriented community and serve as an incubator and creative outlet for our children. The growth of the artistic and cultural soul of a community makes our region a better place to live and work.

Arts and cultural programming also bring a substantial return on investment to a local community in the form of tax dollars and increased economic vibrancy.

Therefore, not only does a strong and vibrant community arts and cultural presence strengthen spiritually and philosophically - but it also strengthens a region economically.

Arts and cultural programming are often an important factor used by businesses in their decision as to whether to locate in a particular locale.

A prospective business will often gauge the health of a community by investigating the vigor of the non-profit community, the faith community, youth oriented programming, recreation opportunities and the level of art and cultural opportunities available for the community and therefore its employees.

Additionally, the economic impact statistics of this renewed emphasis on arts and cultural infrastructure are extraordinarily impressive.

A region is not necessarily transformed by the power, quality, and value of art - but rather, by the greater sense of identity, vibrancy, economic impact, optimism and sense of self worth, it gives a community.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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