Article California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence By Scott Wolfe, ICMA-CM

Buellton boosts its burgeoning arts and culture scene

The city of Buellton won the 2022 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence in the Economic Development Through the Arts category. For more information about the award program, visit

Nicknamed “Servicetown, USA,” Buellton (pop. 5,161) was historically known as a convenient place to find lodging for the night, fuel and service vehicles, and indulge in world-famous pea soup at Pea Soup Andersen’s while traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco. While certainly a part of Buellton’s history, this reputation failed to reflect all that the city had to offer to visitors and residents.

These travel-oriented services still exist. But now, the city has a reputation for its local wine industry, beautiful natural landscape, and a growing arts scene that is only a short drive from Santa Barbara.

Residents have long pushed for more arts and culture opportunities to increase their quality of life. More recently, residents, businesses, and city officials alike have come to view the arts as a way to incentivize economic development. Like many aspects of government, this is easier said than done. The city has just 20 full-time employees. And like many aspects of city government, the resulting project has its roots in a financial crisis — in this case, the Great Recession of 2008.

Small programs with big impacts

In 2009, a grassroots-led steering committee asked hundreds of residents what the city should look like in the future. This wide-ranging, inclusive public engagement campaign included workshops geared towards younger residents and Buellton’s Spanish-speaking population. The resulting vision plan identified eight intertwined community goals to enhance residents’ lives through economic development, advance a healthy lifestyle, and create new arts and culture experiences.

These goals were expected to proceed together. The revitalization of downtown areas would spur economic development, which would then provide funds for work on the other goals. However, the recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown was slow. The expected revitalization failed to materialize, leaving many of the goals unmet. Community members continued to express their desire for more arts and culture opportunities, touting both its economic and cultural benefits.

In response, the city council “primed the pump” by creating the Arts and Culture Committee in 2019. The committee was open to all interested people so that the larger Santa Ynez Valley community could contribute their expertise. The city drew from its General Fund to give the committee a $50,000 annual budget for artistic and cultural projects.

“Rather than focusing on art galleries or museums, the city wanted local artists, nonprofits, and businesses to bring the arts to the community, particularly our youth,” said Buellton Council Member John Sanchez, who has represented the city council on the committee since its inception. “Visitors will be able to experience these opportunities, which will enhance our tourism, but Buellton’s residents should benefit from this program first and foremost.”

These projects began small but have had a big impact. More than 15 projects have been completed to date, including public art installations, musical performances, and interactive experiences for all community members.

The inaugural program, Día de los Muertos, was a series of art workshops that culminated in a Día de los Muertos celebration. Residents of all ages participated in a hands-on artistic experience and were exposed to the cultural aspects of the traditional Mexican observance.

The committee later funded the Buellton Bach and Bluegrass Stroll during the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. A guitarist and violinist from a local music conservatory walked the city’s neighborhoods performing classical and bluegrass music for residents to enjoy from their porches and front yards.

For another program, a local composer created a symphonic composition that reflects life in Buellton. Accompanied by audio recordings of residents describing their favorite aspects of Buellton, the composition was performed at a 2022 music festival, which featured a variety of musical performers representing different styles of music and cultural expression.

Artists also created Walk into Wildfire, an immersive experience that “placed” viewers into the heart of a wildfire. It allowed residents to safely confront the possibility and presence of wildfire, raising awareness about the danger of wildfires and the importance of implementing fire safety measures to protect life and property.

The committee actively solicits ideas from community members. Liz Poulin Alvarez, an artist and high school teacher, suggested creating park-themed murals that are now installed near city hall as both art and tourism opportunities.

“Buellton is blessed with beautiful places to visit,” Alvarez said, “A traveler passing through town may see these murals and be inspired to stop and see more of the city.”

Beyond providing art installations, performances, and interactive cultural experiences for less than $50,000 each year, the committee supports local artists, businesses, and community-based organizations, and helps engage tourists and other visitors from outside the community to discover what Buellton has to offer.

“The arts and culture program allows a small city with 20 full-time employees to provide amenities to residents far exceeding what could be provided by the city staff alone, and at significantly less expense,” Buellton Recreation Supervisor Kyle Abello said.

A possible model for other cities

The program has been well-received both by residents and the regional arts community. “Buellton funds an arts program to promote and display art in any form to create interest in our community,” said Holly Sierra, a former mayor and early committee advocate. “We want to promote arts and culture in our community that gets residents of all ages involved with both the production and appreciation of the end projects. It’s a unique experience for many of them and a great way to get residents involved in their community!”

The Santa Barbara County Arts Commission honored the program with the 2021 Leadership in Arts Award. The annual award recognizes an individual or organization for innovative approaches and commitment to improving Santa Barbara County’s quality of life through the arts. County Arts Commissioner Mary Harris nominated the program.

“In just a few years, and through the disruptions of the pandemic, this organization has managed a very impressive group of activities for the citizens of Buellton and the Santa Ynez Valley,” Harris wrote, “The city council … has produced a model of citizen participation in the arts that other Santa Barbara cities might well wish to emulate.”

Scott Wolfe, ICMA-CM, is the city manager for Buellton. He can be reached at (805) 688-5177 or Watch this video for an overview of the project.