By Dan Crowley
AMHERST — Leaders of Hampshire County’s arts, culture and tourism industry gave state lawmakers plenty to ponder in two hours of testimony at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center on Monday.
The forum was the latest stop on a statewide listening tour by the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, which helps craft policies and determine spending priorities in these sectors.
“This is an essential component of who we are as a people and the commonwealth,” said state Sen. Eric P. Lesser, D-Longmeadow. “It’s also an essential component of economic development.”
Lesser, Senate co-chairman of the committee, represents the First Hampden and Hampshire district which includes Belchertown and Granby.
Other committee members who attended were House co-chairman, Cory Atkins, D-Concord, and Reps. Michael Finn, D-West Springfield, and RoseLee Vincent, D-Revere.
Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce and director of the county’s Regional Tourism Council, was among the first to speak and provided the lawmakers with facts and figures on the millions of tourism-related dollars moving through the county and the jobs they support.
Beck said the tourism economy in Hampshire County has increased by 20 percent in the past decade and directly supports 900 jobs. Another 4,200 jobs are dependent on the tourism economy, including about 1,000 individual artists, she said.
The jobs “are dependent on the tourism economy because of the spending visitors do,” Beck told committee members.
Several of the 60 or so people who attended the session in the Concert Hall of the Fine Arts Center stressed the need for increased funding for arts, culture and tourism, including Greg Liakos, spokesman for the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
The state agency receives a $14 million appropriation, of which a little more than $1 million is invested in Hampshire County. Liakos said the state agency is advocating for $17 million to better support arts, culture and tourism across the state.
Suzanne Dunlop, managing director of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, told the legislators that Valley Gives Day, the annual online fundraising drive that supports nonprofit organization in the Valley, is a key indicator of how important the arts and culture are to the area.
This year, organizations raised approximately $2 million from donors, and arts and cultural organizations received the second most amount of money in donations among the nonprofits that participated, she said.
“I think that says something about the values of the people in this region,” Dunlop said.
Others testified about the importance of agricultural tourism, including Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. Korman discussed the connection between local farmers and the businesses, restaurants and arts and cultural events and resources they support.
“Farmers appreciate the tourism economy,” Korman said. “People coming into this area actually want to taste what is grown here.”
Several speakers talked about the need for more support for the infrastructure needs of cultural facilities — and to better market their organizations outside the region. Among them was Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, who talked about literary tourism and how poet Emily Dickinson’s work and legacy helps drive tourism in the Valley.
“Eighty percent of our audience comes from beyond a 50-mile radius,” Wald told the lawmakers. “We are literally a tourist destination.”
The committee members also heard from an array of other arts and cultural organizations, including leaders from the Academy of Music, Paradise City Arts Festival, Northampton Community Arts Trust and Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst.
Following the session, the lawmakers were scheduled to make several other stops Monday that included lunch at the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst and visits to Lilacland in Pelham, as well as the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and Atkins Farms Country Market in Amherst.
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.
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