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Welcoming Economy Innovations: How Films, Food, and Partnership Unite Communities and Spark Community Development

Recently, creative placemaking, especially as it relates to community development, has gained a lot of attention. While the term may seem new, the work has been happening in neighborhoods and cities for decades. But what is creative placemaking? According to National Endowment for the Arts, “creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire and be inspired” (Gadwa Nicodemus & Markusen, 2010).

In a 2010 white paper, Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus provided framing for creative placemaking including three elements: strategic action by cross-sector partners; a place-based orientation; and a core of arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking has gained recognition in the community development field and the philanthropic community as a best practice to build social cohesion and enhance other elements of community development.

Welcome Toledo-Lucas County (Toledo, Ohio) consistently incorporates creative placemaking into its approach to immigrant economic integration, most notably with the Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF). Beginning in 2015, the TIFF is now an annual event hosted by Welcome TLC and the Ohio Theatre & Event Center, the last remaining neighborhood theater in Toledo. Held over three days, the TIFF  presents curated films, food, and performances with artistic and cultural significance. In 2017, the TIFF featured 6 films from across the globe, an array of food from local ethnic and immigrant-owned restaurants, performances, and panels and facilitated discussions. Significantly, the TIFF features the three elements of creative placemaking.

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Photo credit: Tre Simms

Strategic Action by Cross-Sector Partners

Partnership is at the initiative’s core. Welcome Toledo-Lucas County (TLC) is a cross-sector collaboration housed at the Board of Lucas County Commissioner, local government, in partnership with Toledo LISC, a nonprofit community development support organization that launched a national creative placemaking program with support from The Kresge Foundation. In its efforts to build a global and inclusive community, Welcome TLC developed a strategic partnership with United North, a  community development corporation in North Toledo, that operates the Ohio Theatre. The CDC saw it as an opportunity to draw broader communities to the neighborhood through highlighting its immigrant heritage and cultural diversity. “With the diversity of the Toledo community, it is important to recognize and appreciate arts and culture from around the world,” said Ohio Theatre Manager Kim Sanchez.

The TIFF includes many more partners on various levels that help increase attendance, draw residents to the neighborhood, and lift up local diverse groups and businesses. The planning committee is comprised of arts and cultural, faith-based, government, and nonprofit partners. The TIFF also incorporates a concept called “Community Partnerships”, which allows nonprofits and community groups the opportunity to be involved with the TIFF without a financial investment. These partnerships have helped broaden the reach and audience of the TIFF and have drawn more people to the Ohio Theatre and the neighborhood in general. The TIFF also features food from local Toledo immigrant-owned and ethnic restaurants and performances by dynamic local immigrant and ethnic groups, which began through collaboration with the local Arts Commission of Greater Toledo.

Photo credit: Tre Simms

Photo credit: Tre Simms

A Place-Based Orientation

Held at the Ohio Theatre and Event Center in North Toledo, the TIFF seeks to add to the transformation of the local neighborhood as well as to the broader community. The TIFF draws on and celebrates the immigrant heritage of North Toledo. Polish Village and Little Syria are neighborhoods of North Toledo that once knew strong Polish, Syrian, Lebanese, Greek, and Palestinian immigrant communities only a generation ago. Welcome TLC recognizes the diversity of the greater Toledo area – both past and present – and leverages the Ohio Theatre as a signal to the larger community that the area is a welcoming place and that Toledo is a place you can find opportunity and friendship.

Welcome TLC and the Ohio Theatre have also worked to include and collaborate with existing neighborhood residents. Partnerships with youth programs and women’s organizations, for example, have been effective in strengthening engagement with the primarily African-American and Latino residents. This neighborhood is targeted for greater collaboration and opportunity in the coming years.

Photo credit: Lindsay Akens

A Core of Arts & Cultural Activities

At the heart of the TIFF is the arts and culture of immigrant and diverse communities. In three years, films have been shown from China to Guatemala, from New Zealand to Iran, from Hungary to Mali. According to Salma Barudi, Welcome TLC Steering Committee member and one of the founding organizers of the TIFF, “film can educate community members on the experiences of their neighbors and help them to gain an international perspective. Now more than ever, the TIFF is important to our local community because it shines a light on the positive impact that people of diverse cultures make on our community.”

Food has also been integral with dishes from Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Greece, and India to name a few. The TIFF also invites performances from local artists from Japanese drumming and Mexican folk dancing to Tango lessons and Latin jazz and classical guitar. The films, food, and performances help break down barriers and celebrate diverse heritages. These arts and cultural activities also attract people to Toledo, specifically North Toledo, and can be the spark to drive development in the area.

From the TIFF’s inaugural year to 2017’s festival, attendance has grown from nearly 240 to over 900, making the TIFF the most successful annual event for the recently revitalized Ohio Theatre. Much of the success and growth can be attributed to the 30+ partners – including sponsors, businesses, organizers, community partners, performers, and volunteers – that make the TIFF possible. The ongoing partnership between Welcome TLC, the Ohio Theatre, and the many organizations from the community fosters a rich addition to the cultural experience of the area as well as an economic development opportunity for the neighborhood and city.

“Not only is immigration and diversity providing a cultural benefit to Toledo but an economic benefit to the neighborhood as well,” said Sanchez. With the $241 million immigrants are contributing to the local economy (Partnership for a New American Economy, 2015), it is no doubt that creative placemaking events like the TIFF are a significant opportunities for the whole community.