Building Creative Communities

June 09, 2015
By  Kathy Moore Cowan

So, how did I find myself in Colquitt, Ga., a small town of about 1,600 people located in the southwest corner of the state, for the 2015 Building Creative Communities conference? Better yet, how did a small town attract so many people from as far away as China, Nepal and Aruba, as well as graduate students in social work and city and regional planning? Walking through the town, I witnessed evidence of community pride, confidence and high self-esteem. The people are friendly. The court square is clean. Many buildings have been renovated and are occupied. There are murals and beautification projects. There is life and activity. You can see that this is a healthy community that can tackle whatever comes its way. After reading about Colquitt in several case studies through the years, I was anxious to see the town for myself, to witness firsthand how this small town built a cultural tourism industry that brings 55,000 visitors annually and fosters creativity, leadership and inclusivity into building community.

It is hard to believe that in 1990, Colquitt was located in the ninth-poorest congressional district in the U.S.; more than half the population had moved to nearby cities to find work. Colquitt community leader Joy Jinks says, "We were desperate. We needed something here to turn things around, but there was no industry that was going to come to Colquitt, Georgia." They did not want the solution to be the typical economic development options for small towns—solid waste dump, prison, chicken-processing plant.

While attending a conference in New York in 1990, Jinks met Richard Owen Geer, a Chicago theater director and doctoral student at Northwestern University. She expressed concern about Miller County's economic decline and the growing number of youth who left the region after graduation. Geer told her about his theory that performance could be used as a community-building tool—if a community collected and retold their own stories, people would be empowered, the community would bond, and boundaries of race, social class, age and gender would be erased. Jinks told him that they were looking for a way to revitalize their community and to celebrate their rural heritage; Geer was looking for a community to try out his theory. Six months later, they met with the Colquitt/Miller Arts Council and decided to use the talent of the residents to forge an alternative economy based on cultural tourism. "Swamp Gravy" was born.

"Swamp Gravy" debuted on October 12, 1992. The play is based on true stories of Colquitt residents and relies on a cast of 75-125 local and regional volunteers. It is professionally directed, designed and choreographed. Each year, new stories are collected and transformed into an original play, which is performed 32 times each year in March and October.

Since its start, amazing things have happened with "Swamp Gravy":

  • Performed at the Kennedy Center in November 1996
  • Performed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; received the Cultural Olympiad Award
  • Sold more than 140,000 tickets, 72 percent to out-of-town visitors
  • Produced two music recordings; published 14 plays and four books of oral history
  • Hosted annual Building Creative Communities conference with Florida State University since 2006
  • Started the New Life Learning Center, an after-school elementary tutorial and enrichment/art activity center
  • Spun off a youth theater company
  • Renovated five historic buildings, including Cotton Hall Theatre (60-year-old cotton warehouse), the play's home
  • Created a cultural center for entrepreneurism; several businesses have started in the downtown area—Tarrer Inn, Market on the Square—and an entrepreneur has created a soundstage in the industrial park, where movies are filmed
  • Started the Community Development Corp. of Southwest Georgia, which has built a 32-unit affordable housing complex, launched a small-business incubator and established a youth entrepreneurship program
  • Facilitated installation of public art—16 storytelling murals downtown were started in 1999 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as another art-based strategy to draw tourists all year long; Colquitt was designated Georgia's First Mural City by the state legislature
  • Hosted the Global Mural, Arts and Culture Tourism conference in 2010
  • Started Swamp Gravy Institute—Consultants have shared this national/international model for art-based community revitalization in communities in 15 states and several foreign nations
  • Brought millions of dollars into a community that was dying; cultural tourism now provides more jobs and revenues than any other industry in Colquitt
Cotton Hall Court Square Mural

TOP: The renovated Cotton Hall Theatre, 60-year-old home of "Swamp Gravy."
MIDDLE: Colquitt's Court Square, where several of the town's new businesses have started.
BOTTOM: "Neighbors," one of 16 storytelling murals installed in downtown Colquitt with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Colquitt has become a national and international model of rural and economic development. The arts industry is a powerful force for economic development nationwide. In communities, small towns, rural and urban areas across the country, the arts industry attracts investments, residents and visitors; provides jobs; supports local businesses; and provides revenue to local government. "Swamp Gravy" demonstrates that art initiatives can be an effective component of economic development programs.

The community acknowledges the role of leadership, vision, commitment and dedication in their success, but residents believe it is creativity that makes them different. In "Colquitt-Miller County, Georgia: Benchmarks of Progress 1976-2006," author Karen Kimbrel writes:

"What makes this community different from other small rural communities in the U.S. is that magic ingredient—Creativity. Creative communities are different from traditional community and economic development models because creative communities rely on human potential, knowledge, and capabilities as opposed to tangible goods and deliverable services. Also, rather than being physical place-focused, they are about human spirit. They are about building the human infrastructure that leads to self-confidence and high self-esteem. When a person has these two basic components, that person has a foundation on which to grow, develop, and achieve any goal he or she may set.

"When creative projects enter the picture, people can establish new and exciting networks to obtain social and economic entrees where before only walls existed preventing their entrance. It is about the realization that the sky is the limit when a community works together for a common goal despite dismal demographics in regards to declining population, high rate of poverty and low educational levels. Creative strategies can and do break down barriers when the 'norm' only continues to support the status quo."

From the beginning, Colquitt residents realized the importance of human capital. It is evident in their mission: "To involve as many people as possible in a theatrical experience that EMPOWERS individuals, BONDS the community and STRENGTHENS the local economy while crossing the boundaries of race, social class, age and gender." Perhaps this is the town's greatest accomplishment. "Swamp Gravy" has united the community, connected people who had not previously worked together and empowered them to take on other projects. It literally has helped Colquitt reject a slow death, renew the community's spirit and prosper.

Kathy Moore Cowan is a senior community development specialist at the Memphis Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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