BEMIDJI -- Members and supporters of the Minnesota State Arts Board gathered at the Sanford Center in Bemidji on Thursday to have group discussions about the impact of the arts on different aspects of their communities.

And the arts does have a definite impact. According to the state board, the arts have an annual $1 billion impact in Minnesota. There are some 30,000 artists in Minnesota and more than 1,600 arts-related organizations. According to statistics from the board, 70 percent of Minnesotans from across the state believe that having the arts in their environment gives them pride in their community.

As part of its three-day conference in Bemidji, the arts board held two public round table discussions Thursday -- “Using arts to build vibrant communities” and “Supporting and sustaining a thriving art community.” Both discussions revolved around how representatives of different communities and organizations were developing arts-related projects. Participants talked about both their successes and their challenges in sustaining a community with a positive arts community.

Locally, Bemidji and Beltrami County are part of the Region 2 Arts Council, whose mission is to strengthen the presence of the arts by "supporting artistic opportunities throughout Northern Minnesota." Region 2 serves the five counties of Beltrami, Clearwater, Hubbard, Lake of the Woods and Mahnomen. The region also includes areas of Red Lake, Leech Lake and White Earth.

The first panel included individuals who have connections to the arts and the city they represent. All panelists agreed the impact of the arts in their communities was far more complex and had deeper meaning and impact than one may think.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht emphasized the impact the arts has on Bemidji's tourist population and also the role it plays in growing the city itself.

“I support the arts in part because I think is great for economic development -- I know that the work artists do adds value and vibrancy to our community -- they generate economic impact by their salaries and materials,” Albrecht said. “Our community benefits from having lots of public art in it.”

Deb Plaff, director of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, added the growing art scene here gives tourists something other than the outdoors or sports to bring them to the area. And, the arts also benefits those who call Bemidji home, Albrecht said. “We have to use the arts to create a vibrant community where people want to land,” Albrecht said during the discussion.

Another element to the arts is education, panelists said. Andrew Mack, city planner for the city of Park Rapids, responded to an audience member's question about making a deeper connection with K-12 education and the arts in the region.

Mack briefly spoke about a traveling project completed by students in third through eighth grade in Park Rapids and how it has benefited the community as a whole. After the round table discussion, Albrecht said she'd like to see Bemidji bring more students into the arts community.

“As a city we haven't really been very active in that -- I think there is a great opportunity for the city and the arts community and our schools to connect in a broader way with students,” said Albrecht.

Sue Gens, executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, said the open discussions held Thursday are valuable for board members for feedback from people statewide.

“Well, it's really important for our board members to have a chance to be in the room and meet people,” Gens said. “As we have these meetings around the state, if we start to hear themes that there are certain kinds of things everyone is dealing with it's a good thing for us to focus on those things.”

“Because this is public money and taxpayer dollars -- it is important for us to hear where people want the money to go,” Gens added, referring to Minnesota's Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment passed in 2008.

The amendment was passed by 56 percent of voters to increase Minnesota sales tax by three-eights of a percent until 2034. Revenue from the tax increase benefits projects to better outdoor heritage, arts and culture, clean water and parks and trails in Minnesota.

Public feedback and questions are always accepted by members of the board. Gens encourages anyone with questions to either visit the Minnesota State Arts Board website at http://www.arts.state.mn.us/ or to contact her directly at sue.gens@arts.state.mn.us.