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The rise and fall and rise of the creative class

by Ogi Overman

A decade ago, Richard Florida’s theory on the economic promise of the new creative class was all the rage. Is it still valid today? And will the Triad ever grasp its potential?

In the mid-part of the first decade of the new century Richard Florida was a rock star. The toast of every town in which he was invited to appear — and there were many — he was feted and treated, wined and dined, lauded and applauded. His 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class was hailed as the salvation for struggling cities, a brilliant new approach to sociological and cultural changes, a paradigm for economic development, and a way to attract the best and brightest to a metro area.

Greensboro was one of those cities that hosted Florida, bringing him and a small entourage of folk that included former Austin, Texas Mayor Kirk Watson — one of the cities that bore out his theories — to town for two days of lectures, symposiums and panel discussions, Oct. 30-31, 2003. Amid a flurry of media attention, Florida addressed a packed house at the Empire Room in downtown Greensboro, followed the next day by four panel discussions, meet-ups and a general feeling that this was the start of something big.

“Several of us went to see him at NC State where he was addressing an Emerging Issues Forum,” said Susan Schwartz, then executive director of Action Greensboro, “and decided to bring him here. The core of his message, as I recall, was that you’re not necessarily bringing in large companies anymore; you’re trying to attract people. It was appealing because it got people thinking about where they want to live, what qualities cities have that appeal to creative people and to young people. You want a community that’s very livable and open. He stressed the importance in investing in your downtown and your educational system, and giving people the opportunities to grow their business.”

Winston-Salem was also among the cities that invited Florida to spread his message. “He was all over here,” recalls Richard Emmett, now chief operating officer of the Winston-Salem Arts Council. “It must have been around that same time frame, but he was here several times.”

But just as quickly as the euphoria surrounding Florida’s visits blossomed, it faded. Before any structures were put in place to test out his this new notion of creating an environment conducive to attracting and nurturing the idea people, the idea itself seemed to either fall out of favor or die for lack of a second.

“I would agree that in some ways it fizzled,” said Schwartz, who now runs the CEMELA Foundation, “but I would also argue that some things have happened that have changed our culture a little bit. I do think we’ve made some progress. SynerG, the organization that was formed through Action Greensboro to attract and retain young people, is still going strong. And I think having the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering [at NC A&T and UNCG] plays a big role in it.”

While no one can pinpoint exactly why the idea never quite took root, theories abound — blaming the economy, which was already in the doldrums locally before it crashed nationally, to the lack of follow-up and/or political leadership, to the notion that Greensboro and Winston-Salem are simply not sophisticated enough to grasp the bold, far-reaching, visionary theory.

And while Florida is not without his detractors, most of the local civic leaders who were involved back then remain convinced that the idea not only holds promise, but remains a blueprint for the future.

“I definitely think the concept of the creative class is still valid,” said Schwartz. “We’re all still committed to the revitalization of downtown. I don’t think anyone has lost sight of the importance of creating a sense of place.”

Keith Holliday, who was mayor of Greensboro during that time and is currently the CEO of the group that manages the Carolina Theatre, not only points out some of the physical improvements but institutional and attitudinal, as well.

“There’s no question that we’ve moved the needle as we’ve transitioned from a manufacturing-based to a knowledge-based economy,” he said. “Not as much as we would like, but a big part of that is because of the economy, at least since 2008.… But we’ve kept the creative thinking alive. You almost have to associate creativity with progressive thinking; you can make the case that we are a progressive community in several ways, such as our green spaces and downtown greenway and parks and rec programs [an area Florida stresses that is important in attracting creative thinkers]. We vote with our pocketbook for non-essential, quality-of-life programs, and that’s a sign of progress. And the fact that we’re even talking about a performing arts center — you can’t even get to that point unless you can think in those progressive terms.”

Emmett, too, makes the case that Winston-Salem has made progress in a number of areas, much of it attributable to the Creative Class.

“Our [arts-council] grants to the community have gone up almost a million dollars since 2004, almost doubled, ” he noted. “We’ve built a new arts center, downtown has been revitalized, the number of restaurants and clubs have exploded, we now have a Downtown Arts District Association, the gallery hops, just to name a few. But the point is, what’s happening today is related to the programs that were put in place to foster this kind of stuff, they laid the groundwork. Without them none of these things would have happened.”

How It Works Richard Florida developed his theory of the creative class while an urban-studies professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In a nutshell, it asserts that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of creative people will exhibit a higher level of economic development than areas that are manufacturing or service oriented. His definition of the creative class not only includes the usual suspects of artists, musicians, actors, dancers, sculptors, writers, designers and chefs, but also scientists, educators, architects, engineers and healthcare providers. His criterion for inclusion is that they “all share a common creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference and merit,” adding, “Every aspect and manifestation of creativity — technological, cultural and economic — is interlinked and inseparable.… The creative class consists of people who add economic value through their creativity. It thus includes a great many knowledge workers, symbolic analysts and professional and technical workers.… Most members do not own and control any significant property in the physical sense. Their property — which stems from their creative capacity — is an intan gible because it is literally in their heads.”

Further, he claims that this class of folk promulgates a more dynamic and professional environment, which attracts increasing numbers of creative people, in turn creating more business and more capital. In other words, it builds on itself.

“By supporting lifestyle and cultural institutions like a cutting-edge music scene or vibrant artistic community, for instance, it helps to attract and stimulate those who create in business and technology,” he writes. “It also facilitates cross-fertilization between and among these forms…. It’s not just a scene, but many: a music scene, a film scene, outdoor recreation scene, nightlife scene, and so on — all reinforcing one another.”

As for creating the sense of place, he writes, “The creative workers I talked with insist they need to live in a place that offers stimulating, creative environments. Many will not even consider taking job in certain cities or regions…. [Many] use location as their primary criterion in a proactive sense. They will pick a place they want to live, then focus their job search there.”

Connecting the dots between creativity and job creation, he notes, “The key to economic growth lies not just in the ability to attract the creative class, but to translate that underlying advantage into creative economic outcomes in the form of new ideas, new high-tech businesses and regional growth.” Toward that end he devised several charts that measure a city’s creativity index that serves as a baseline indicator of a region’s overall standing in the creative economy.

He ranked 49 metro areas, with San Francisco and Austin being Nos. 1 and 2. Chapel Hill ranked No. 6. Greensboro ranked… No. 41. The Positives and the Negatives Florida is very blunt when he concludes, “Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative-class people prosper; those that fail don’t.” So that, in a nutshell, is the challenge that faces the Triad. It’s not enough to build ballparks and roads and schools and walking trails and museums and shopping centers — although all those factor mightily into the equation — it’s about building community, of creating a mindset that places value on creativity, that nurtures its creators and provides them ways and means to polish their respective crafts. It’s not enough to put in place institutions such as synerG and the Creative Center and the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship and the downtown Arts District and the university research centers — it’s about supporting them. And that, according to Holliday and Emmett, requires investment and political will.

“You can’t just do it with a progressive attitude,” claimed Holliday. “You’ve got to have investment. A lot of us see the potential for smart growth here, but it’s going to take dedication and investment and leadership, including city leadership. We have a lot of things going for us, we just have to believe in ourselves enough to invest in ourselves.”

Emmett cites several specifics, in terms of investing in ourselves, that are stifling creativity and holding back progress.

“Forsyth and Guilford counties are probably the only two urban counties in the state that don’t get any sort of dedicated tax-revenue stream, either from hotel occupancy or rental cars or sales tax or prepared foods tax,” he noted. “Wake and Mecklenburg counties and Fayetteville do, and those investments have paid off big in those communities. But we haven’t been able to find the willpower politically to do it here.”

On June 11, the NC Arts Council will release a five-year study on the arts and economic prosperity, detailing the impact of the arts on the overall economy. Both the Winston-Salem and Greensboro arts councils (headed by Milton Rhodes and Tom Philion, respectively) will release their own studies to coincide with it.

“The numbers are in, and I think you’ll see it’s a big economic driver,” said Emmett.

But aside from the financial end of the creativity question, some would argue that creativity has inherent value in and of itself that justifies its support.

“If you are of the belief that man is created in the image of God, then naturally, you must believe that we are creator-beings at our core,” mused Madelyn Greco, one half of LivingBrush Bodypainting (with fiancé Scott Fray), the reigning World Bodypainting Festival champions. “Or take God from the equation, then you need only look at the world that surrounds us as proof that humans are a pure creative force. In our culture, fine art of the ages is celebrated and preserved, while the art of design touches the most ordinary, everyday object, from a skyscraper to an ice cream scoop. To bare one’s soul to another is a powerful communicative force and can change lives and perspectives. The creation of art is a physical manifestation of this expression; it has the power to touch another on levels beyond the ordinary means, around barriers, across borders and through time and space. We are all artists, creating; we are all audience, receiving. Art is the zeitgeist of humanity in the universe.”

Susan Sassman, executive director of the Creative Center in Greensboro, has a similar take.

“I think that this community is hungry for more of the arts,” she opined. “I think they really want more community, I think they want to be lifted to a higher plane, that the conceptual age is on the horizon, and that it’s going to be the creative class that really brings us together. People are disillusioned and they’re really scrambling hard. I see people’s faces light up when they walk into here because it touches them in their hearts or in their souls. I think that the Creative Center and places like it have something to offer to the greater good. There are so many artists and facilitators of art in this community that fly under the radar, and I think their time is coming. I really think that it’s right on the horizon and I’m really happy to be a part of that; part of the driving force that can try to lift the creative class to a higher good.”

Florida himself seems to strike a balance between the brass-tacks financial and the philosophical sides, writing, “To be effective, the creative class may ultimately have to invent new forms of collective action… a shared vision that can motivate the specific actions we choose to take. This vision must reflect the very principles of the Creative Age: that creativity is the fundamental source of economic growth, and that it is an essential part of everyone’s humanity that needs to be cultivated.”

The Next Two Years Given that there are far too many questions to answer, people to profile and issues to weigh in on, and too much ground to cover for one article, the editor and publisher of YES! Weekly and the author have devised a plan. Because of the dire importance of this subject and its implications for the future of the region, to give it the coverage that it deserves, we have decided to make this a long-term project. Each week for the next two years, a space will be devoted herein to exploring the Triad’s creative class in all its manifestations. Most of those weeks the space will be divided into three segments profiling a creator, a facilitator and a monetizer — one who creates the idea, art form, product or service; one who enables and nurtures the creator so that he may hone his craft relatively unfettered; and one who turns said idea into money, jobs and economic growth. Since all three are part of the same equation, all three merit coverage.

Moreover, interspersed among the profiles will be columns devoted to issues such as the arts council reports mentioned above, as well as any number of what may seem to be ancillary local issues but, in fact, directly correlate to the formation of a creative core that drives the economic engine of a community. Why, for instance, does Greensboro need a performing arts center and why does it need to be downtown? Why was the passage of Amendment One a detriment to attracting creative types to the Triad (though, to be fair, 57 percent of Greensboro did vote against it)? And how does the concept of regionalism play into the marketing and branding of an area and its vitality?

At the end of that period, we hope to have charted the progress of the region and quantified how much of it can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to the creative class. Perhaps we may have even answered the question of whether this is a valid socioeconomic concept. But at the very least we will have contributed to the dialogue of how best to move the Triad forward and make it as livable and hospitable as it can be.

This much we know: There is no shortage of creative people in the Triad. In the next two years, you are going to meet a couple hundred or more of them.

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