HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Nevermind manufacturing plants, retailing megacenters, ag producers. Three northeast Missouri towns are taking an artistic approach to economic development.
Through an effort known as the Provenance Project, a 50-mile corridor of arts has been created from Hannibal to Louisiana to Clarksville -- a corridor along a gorgeous stretch of Missouri Route 79 along the Mississippi River.
Now, nearly 30 artists -- ranging from painters to folk artists to a quiltmaker to a glass blower -- live and work in and around the towns -- Hannibal, population 18,000, Louisiana, population 5,000, and Clarksville, population 500. While some were already there before the project began taking shape three years ago, others have been lured to Missouri by the notion of creating their art in a peaceful environment, surrounded by other artists.
They've also been lured by financial incentives.
Ten northeast Missouri banks have committed more than $5 million for low-interest loans to help bring artists and craftsmen to the region. State and federal tax credit programs are offered. Organizers will even help artists shop for store space and studios.
In return, the region is getting a growing and diverse group of artists, filling storefronts and attracting visitors, creating a trendy, cultured boost to the economy.
'You've got a destination'
"You might not come up here to visit one artist, but you might make a day trip to visit 30," said John Stoeckley of Louisiana, a pen, ink and watercolor artist. "Then you've got a destination where people will come."
The idea for a corridor of arts began with Stoeckley and Steve and Linn Ayers, who for 20 years have operated a successful pottery business just a block from Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal.
They saw traditional businesses -- clothing stores, dime stores -- abandoning downtown for the outer fringes, leaving behind historic but vacant 19th-century brick buildings.
A handful of local artists formed the Great River Road Guild of Professional Artisans, the group behind the Provenance Project ("provenance" is defined as the origin of art) that officially began in 1999.
"To get artists to move to the area we had to do two things: You recruit, and then once they come here you basically promised some type of joint promotion," Ayers said. "If somebody took a chance and came, there would be a payoff."
Faye Bleigh, Hannibal's tourism director, said she already sees a payoff. Bus tours and families that used to come just for the Mark Twain sites are staying the extra day to take in the artists, she said.
Bleigh compared the goals of the project to those in Branson in the 1960s.
"In Branson, those folks wanted to get as many musicians as they could because they knew they could become known for music and theaters," Bleigh said. "Here, the more artists and craftspeople we can get, we can have this wonderful attraction -- 50 miles of artists."
Some formerly vacant storefronts on Hannibal's Main Street are now home to artisans. Steve and Linn Ayers now have three shops, including a restaurant. At his shop on Third Street, visitors finger hand-crafted bowls and plates in one room and watch through a window as pottery makers work in another.
Thirty-four miles to the south, artists are now helping Louisiana's economically depressed downtown gain new life.
Many grand old Victorian buildings still sit vacant or underused, but artisans like sculptors Teres Whitney and Jon Moran, stone artists Cliff and Barbara Bliss and Stoeckley, who has a large following for his historical pen, ink and watercolor art, now create and sell their works, helping bring new life to the community.
Stoeckley said the arrival of the artists has Louisiana on the verge of resurgence. He himself has purchased four downtown buildings. He has already opened a restaurant and plans a bed-and-breakfast, winery, even a cooking school.
"Louisiana is prime because you can buy a four-story building for $30,000," Stoeckley said. "It's happening. It's not happening quickly, but it is happening."