[caption id="attachment_94550" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Sonoma County's creative sector of the economy is made up of nonprofit and for-profit organizations and individuals. (credit: Arts Action Plan)[/caption]

A recently approved plan to form a new "Creative Sonoma" art-promotion agency is said to be the first comprehensive program of its type to be implemented by any California county.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted in late June to adopt recommendations contained in a 30-page Arts Action Plan that would boost the nonprofit arts community, creative for-profit sector of the economy as well as individual artists and creative professionals.

The plan was produced by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board in collaboration with consultants from the Cultural Planning Group and input from more than 220 stakeholders over a four-month period.

In all, more than 500 individuals were involved in the study, including focus groups and 200 who attended a community forum.

"The arts not only enrich the lives of individuals, but also enrich our community and economic vitality," said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

"This plan helps us move our creative economy to new heights. Supporting our local artists, businesses and creative economy will help make Sonoma County a destination for artists and tourists, while making the community even more vibrant for our residents."

The plan includes a county investment of $250,000 the first year -- up to a total of $500,000 over three years -- with funds coming from TOT revenues to help jump start the new agency.

"We are looking forward to conducting a nationwide search to recruit a director for Creative Sonoma," said Pam Chanter, board chair of the EDB.

"The supervisors felt, as did all the focus groups, that the EDB was the best place to incubate this new program, as they did the tourism bureau for seven years before it became independent and hired its own director. The county anticipates that the EDB will incubate this new arts sector agency for at least three years."

The Arts Action Plan recognizes that Sonoma County faces a transition following the disbanding of the Arts Council of Sonoma County. It seeks to define what agency or partnership would best provide leadership for cultural and economic development, what its focus should be and how it can be structured and funded. 

There were some 210 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in Sonoma County in 2012, and 103 of these were actively operating and filing with the IRS, according to the latest figures from the National Center for Charitable Statistics. For this group, total revenues were $36.6 million with total assets of $98.6 million that year.

The plan identifies the needs of arts organizations, including funding, communication within the arts and business communities, as well as marketing and audience development, public visibility and advocacy about the role and value of arts in the community.

The EDB study group found that there is a lack of information and awareness of arts and culture throughout the county.

For example, the local community may provide strong attendance at downtown summer events, but few outside the immediate area are aware of them because they have not been widely promoted to visitors and regional residents.

"Moving this plan forward has been a priority for me for several years now,"  said Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire. "The creative arts represent an area of significant economic growth for the County. Our research points to a tremendous opportunity to make Sonoma County a destination for the arts just as we are now for wine, food and our beautiful open spaces.  The creative arts enrich our lives and our economy. This plan helps bring people together, it will develop a comprehensive arts strategy and ultimately, it will put Sonoma County on the map as a premiere destination for the arts."

The plan capitalizes on county interest in leveraging arts and culture as part of the tourism brand, which until now has focused primarily on increasing "heads in beds" and wine country promotions.

There is widespread agreement that the county has a role to play in arts leadership, including providing funding through the county's advertising grants program.

According to research by Americans for the Arts, each $1 of local government support generates an average of $3 in increased local tax revenues.

In Sonoma County today, government supported arts grants comprise less than 1 percent of total revenues -- while the national average is 4 percent.

The Arts Action Plan also contains recommendations for four key functions: creative economy planning, cultural tourism planning, public art master planning and cultural facilities planning.

Other proposed agency functions include:Community cultural planning that researches the needs and aspirations of residents, visitors and cultural stakeholders in the county.Convening stakeholder sessions around issues important to the arts community.Compiling an inventory of Sonoma County cultural and creative sector resources.Managing a countywide arts website and events information portal.Overseeing the distribution of funding for arts, culture and the creative sector.Implementing a public art plan.Initiating and coordinating local and regional arts and cultural festivals, such as a Sonoma County National or International Festival of Creativity.Providing technical assistance to artists, cultural organizations and creative businesses.Promoting arts education and lifelong learning in the arts.Developing policy recommendations for county government including zoning and permitting issues.

The cultural tourism component could involve the creation of tools such as an "Arts Map" mirroring the existing Wine Map; art-related signage to direct visitors to local cultural resources; strategically placed arts and events kiosks; art-related collateral materials for local hotels and meetings with hotel concierges to keep tourism ambassadors informed about available arts programs.

Also recommended were zoning changes that could make it easier for artists and creative businesses to sell from their homes, along with permitting and regulatory changes to facilitate the process for launching festivals and special celebrations.

In addition, the EDB study group said new tourism products could be developed, such as packaged experiences, festivals, tours, trails, cross promotions, etc., that would be especially attractive to visitors.

"The Arts Action Plan sets forth the vision, but it won't all get done the first year and is a result of incremental growth," said Ben Stone, executive director of the EDB. "We have done several studies of the non-profit sector over the years and have leveraged this knowledge in the new plan. A lot can be accomplished by partnering with many groups and taking advantage of their resources."

Mr. Stone said there is a complementary relationship between tourism and the Creative Sonoma with some degree of shared interests along with gaps that need to be filled, such as what happens during the cultural tourism off-season from November to March.

"First things first. We need to start with an Arts Commission, hire a director and begin to turn the promise of this vision into a viable implementation plan that will enhance cultural and economic development," he added.