BILBAO, Spain (CNN/Money) -
When the Guggenheim Foundation opened a museum here in 1997, it knew the building would be a landmark. But even the project's biggest boosters could not have foreseen how it would transform Bilbao itself.
Formerly noted for steel mills and shipyards, the Basque city is now home to sleek hotels, designer boutiques and the kind of swank restaurants once found only in Madrid or Barcelona. Today, Bilbao attracts tourists from around the globe, 80 percent of whom say they came explicitly for the Guggenheim.
Since Frank Gehry's architectural masterpiece was finished, more than 6 million visitors have seen it. And although today's crowds are smaller than in the early days, on a recent Thursday afternoon in July, lines still snaked outside the door.
In 2001, the Financial Times estimated that the museum had generated 500 million in economic activity for the region during its first three years, plus 100 million in taxes. Even in 2002 -- the worst year in memory for international tourism -- Guggenheim patrons contributed some 160 million to the local economy.
It's called the Bilbao Effect, and civic leaders from Sarasota to Sacramento are hoping it can happen to them.
They reason that if top-flight architecture can draw free-spending throngs to the industrialized reaches of northern Spain, maybe it can do the same for other benighted burgs.
The Rust Belt gets snazzy
Ambitious public buildings like museums and other cultural institutions have been planned or erected in dozens of U.S. cities, many of them less-than-glamorous locales.
The list reads like an atlas of the Rust Belt: Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis have all invested in major cultural edifices in the past few years. Throw in places like Fort Worth, Oakland and Miami, and it's a crowded field to become "the next Bilbao."
To pay for them, capital fundraising campaigns totalling more than $3 billion have been launched.
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Not all of that money will be raised, of course. Indeed, financial woes have caused the delay or cancellation of a number of high-profile projects. Still, for every big blowup there's another proceeding along schedule.
Seattle's Central Library is the latest case in point. The building, designed by avant-garde Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, opened in May. Immediately, crowds flocked to it.
The library initially expected to receive 5,000 or so daily visitors. On opening day, 28,000 people showed up. Since then, it's been averaging an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 guests per day.
That's good news not only for the library and Koolhaas, but also for any business lucky enough to be located near the attraction. Local newspapers reported that revenues rose 30 to 50 percent at a slew of nearby establishments, from photo developers to taco stands.
"It's a bit like having Disneyland across the street," one happy entrepreneur told the Puget Sound Business Journal.
Tourists come to Texas
A successful new building is the surest way to raise a civic institution's profile and, by association, its hometown's.
In Texas, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth opened a facility in December 2002. Designed by Japanese minimalist Tadao Ando, the project cost about $60 million.
Attendance tripled in the first year it was open, from about 100,000 a year in a predecessor facility to 350,000 in the new one. What's more, the building is drawing a new, worldly kind of tourist to central Texas.
"We've had a large number of international visitors," says spokeswoman Kendal Smith. "In Fort Worth, that really stands out."
Smith points out that the museum has appeared on travel advertisements in Germany and on the Tokyo subway. In other words, Fort Worth -- the original cowtown -- is becoming a tourist trap.
At the Milwaukee Art Museum, the soaring, bird-like structure by hot Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava opened to rave reviews from critics and the public. More than 500,000 people visited the building in its first year, an enormous attendance leap.
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Other ho-hum places are hoping a bit of architectural splash can turn them into tourist meccas, too. Cincinnati's new $36 million Contemporary Arts Center, for example, is the first U.S. building designed by Zaha Hadid, the most recent Pritzker Prize winner (architecture's equivalent of the Nobel).
After the experimental structure opened in May with a torrent of critical praise, its sponsors quickly raised the flag of civic duty.
"This amazing building . . . is very good for Cincinnati," foundation chairman Tom Neyer told reporters. "It will do nothing but add luster to our image.''
It will also encourage still more small cities to go out and hire big architects of their own.
The Good Life is a weekly column that chronicles products, people and trends in luxury consumer goods, travel, and fine food and drink. Write to: email@example.com.