Several American cities are experiencing a renaissance because they are redefining themselves with new attractions. As it turns out, attractions that draw people include music, theater, museums, galleries and gardens: in other words, the arts.
Until very recently, Fayetteville, North Carolina, was best known as the home of Fort Liberty, previously called Fort Bragg. One of the largest military installations in the world by population, with around 54,000 military personnel, the base dominated the city of 212,000.
“Fayetteville was primarily a watering hole for young soldiers,” says Bianca Shoneman, president and CEO of Fayetteville’s Cool Spring Downtown District. “The city served young soldiers as a place to gather and drink.”
In 2017, a study showed that a proposed performing arts center was not feasible without a strong local arts scene.
“That’s when members of the community decided that it was time to re-brand Fayetteville,” Shoneman says. “A combination of public and private investment in downtown has totally transformed the city. We have great architecture from the 19th and early 20th century, and we have great scenic beauty, so we had wonderful elements to build on.”
The organization she heads up, the Cool Spring Downtown District, was founded at that time.
“The city brought in the trolley and redesigned the sidewalks. They went from six feet wide to 20 feet wide, with brick inlay.”
She goes on to explain that the centrally-located Prince Charles Hotel, which had a troubled recent history, was brought back via crowdfunding. An $18 million reconstruction project began in 2017, in which every two hotel rooms were rebuilt as one apartment; today the building is known as The Residences at the Prince Charles.
Perhaps the most energizing building project was construction of Segra Stadium, home of the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, a Minor League Baseball team playing in the Carolina League.
“The combination of new public art projects, entertainment and cultural venues and the baseball stadium has brought back our downtown,” Shoneman says. “There are murals, new galleries and art studios, several museums, a new art school and Linear Park, a scenic eight-mile loop similar to New York’s High Line.
“Now, younger entrepreneurs are coming in,” she says. “In 2021, there were 23 new businesses in downtown Fayetteville, and ownership by women and black people is soaring.”
The funds for these investments come from hotel occupancy taxes. In most communities, those funds go to the convention and visitor centers, but in Fayetteville they are split equally between visitor services and the city’s arts council. In addition to public art projects like murals, the money goes to the local symphony orchestra, two theater companies, a children’s museum and a botanical garden, among other arts entities.
Tulsa, Oklahoma was an oil town for much of its history, its economy fueled by a robust energy industry. In 2021, Americans focused on Tulsa to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, said to be “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” Many traveled to Tulsa to visit what was, in its heyday, called “Black Wall Street,” a thriving neighborhood of black-owned businesses that was destroyed by rampaging mobs.
Many gather at Greenwood Rising, a state-of-the-art history center located at the center of the Greenwood District, the name of the neighborhood that was known as Black Wall Street.
Tulsa has other attractions: one of the best collections of Art Deco architecture in the United States, the home of Route 66, which travels through the heart of the city, and several buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Now there is another reason to visit Tulsa: the brand new Bob Dylan Center. Opened two weeks ago next door to the Woody Guthrie Center, the 29,000-square-foot, state-of-the art center features rotating exhibits, a 5,000+-square-foot archive, a 55-seat screening room, public programs, performances, lectures and publications. It also brings renewed attention to Tulsa as a music destination.
“You can see and hear live music in downtown Tulsa each night of the week,” says Brian Kurtz of the Downtown Tulsa Partnership. “There is Cain’s Ballroom and the Tulsa Theater, which have long been known as centers for what is known around the country as the Tulsa Sound.”
Arthur Jackson, senior vice president of economic development at the Tulsa Regional Chamber, says, “Especially important is the Church Studio, a recording studio founded in 1972 by Leon Russell. Artists come from all over the world to record there; they say the acoustic are extraordinary.”
Cain’s Ballroom is a historic concert venue best known as the birthplace of Western Swing and the home stage of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
There is also the New Tulsa Sound, a blend of country, blues and rock and roll, which can be heard every Sunday night after 10 p.m.at The Colony. The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame and Museum is located in the historic Union Depot Building. And, just opening is OKPOP, The Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, an ideal place to learn about music history.
Tulsa, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, North Carolina used to be known for less-than-praiseworthy things: the country’s worst race massacre and barrooms for soldiers. With intentionalpartnerships and investments, these two cities have focused attention on historic attributes and positive reasons to visit in the future. When a community wills it, it can write a new history.