WW Chamber hopes to blend business with arts scene

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WALLA WALLA -- A Valley rich in the arts holds infinite possibilities for economic development, officials with the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce said.

The business organization hopes to tap the local arts as a way to build business and tourism throughout the community.

The concept was announced during the Chamber's quarterly luncheon in June at the Marcus Whitman Hotel & Conference Center.

A seven-person panel made up of representatives from the Walla Walla Symphony, ArtWalla, Walla Walla Foundry, Power House Theatre, Chamber Music Festival and others left a powerful impression of the local arts scene.

They generally spoke of Walla Walla's continued emergence as an art destination and the ease in which artists and performers can live or work in the seemingly remotest of places and find success.

That concept, as well as the community's quietly existing strength in the art economy, could help bolster future development, said Chamber Chief Executive Officer David Woolson.

"We're interested in exploring the world of art of all kinds," Woolson said.

From galleries to creative services that support art, including software and design, opportunities abound, he said.

"They all can make up the creative economy that's here."

The community has long provided a source of inspiration and support for local artists. The atmosphere also draws out-of-town artists who exhibit their work in local businesses and galleries.

But many people may not realize how strong the arts scene is here, Woolson said.

According to Walla Walla Trends, a website that collects and charts local Census and other data, about 13.4 of every 1,000 businesses were arts-related throughout the county in 2009, the latest year for which the data was updated. That's well above the state rate of eight arts businesses per 1,000. It's grown since 1998, when the number was 9.6 businesses per every 1,000.

Arts-related businesses here also generate 50 percent more revenue than that in other communities, Woolson added.

For panelists, the concept seemed easy to grasp: From scrap metal yards prime for artists' mining, to a depth of local talent to an appreciation of the arts, Walla Walla is a thriving art-lover's destination.

"This place is every bit as beautiful as other destination festivals," said Chamber Music Festival founder and Artistic Director Tim Christie.

After visiting the community in 2007 Christie discovered a community he believes rivals Aspen, Colo.; Banff, Alberta; and the Berkshire Hills in Boston for beauty. He was inspired to start a Chamber Music Festival, building on summertime activities and the arts. Performers rehearse in public places, engaging the public that happens upon it.

"We want to put art in their path," he said. "We want people to trip over our presentation. And when they trip we want people to fall in love with art."

Woolson said the Chamber is working on how it can build on the existing success.

The "creative economy" is one of four focal initiatives of what's being called "The Chamber Works Project."

Other concepts include development of digital infrastructure, "Plow to Plate" culinary scene growth; and a Hispanic business roundtable concept.

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