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Cool Cities

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on February 16, 2004.

At first glance, Max Michaels doesn't look like the type of guy who makes an economy soar.

Thick purple earrings. A dark hat pulled low over his forehead. Ever-present sunglasses covering his eyes both indoors and out. Wearing a black T-shirt and giving off a vibe that says he has many more black T-shirts where that one came from.

In short, not the type of guy you see at many chamber of commerce mixers.

In Michaels' case, he has had a pretty direct impact on Jacksonville's economy: Michaels and his business partner, Nathaniel Thorin, produce Movement Magazine, decorate nightclubs, design Web sites and handle a host of tasks that combine art and business.

But the real import of Michaels and of others like him -- the import of those who are more Bohemian, more avant-garde, more creative than most, more likely to wear a black T-shirt than a dark suit -- might be in their very presence.

The idea that artists, musicians and other creative people have a huge impact on a city's economy has captivated economic development types around the country. The theory goes like this: Companies want certain types of employees to work for them. Those employees, in turn, want to live in places marked by tolerance, excitement and similar values. Places that have those values, then, see an increase in entrepreneurship, innovation and economic activity.

In times past, it must be said, research shows that Jacksonville hasn't been known for its embrace of the artistic, perhaps leading the city to miss out on such growth.

"In my class at [Douglas Anderson School of the Arts]," from which Michaels graduated in 1989, "the only thing people would talk about is leaving the city," he said. "No one offered anything to make them want to stay."

That's changing, Michaels and Thorin both said, as more bars, more clubs, more art galleries -- more life in general -- comes to the city. Such changes, according to others, might be one step on the path to Jacksonville achieving the stature it desires.

If you ask Jim Webb what Jacksonville needs to grow, he'll disappear into the back office of Fuel, the Five Points coffeehouse he founded, and return with a New York Times article headlined "On a Hunt for Ways to Put Sex in the City" that details Memphis' attempts lure young people to the city.

"I had this on the wall for a very long time," he said. "This is what we need. We need young people. We need friendly urban areas. We need to let people do their own thing."

Memphis is one of the cities that has embraced the ideas of Richard Florida, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, whose research focuses on creative people, where they choose to live and how this affects the economy.

Jacksonville would do well to follow a similar path, Webb said, creating the kind of spaces that make creative people want to live here. He recounts conversations he's had with employees who were relocated to Jacksonville from California by Fidelity National Financial Inc., people who were looking for an interesting environment that would make them feel at home.


Companies will follow

Florida's 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class created, or at least popularized, the idea that cities -- and their economies -- are helped by becoming cooler, an idea that rapidly gained traction in economic development circles.

Florida was influenced by projects he was involved with that were designed to attract well-paying jobs, particularly those with high-tech companies, to Pittsburgh. When he looked around, though, he saw graduating students, young professionals and hot companies leaving the "Big Little City," decamping to places like Washington, D.C., Boston and Austin, Texas. They weren't going there for jobs, they told him; instead, they were looking for places where they'd feel comfortable living.

But these aren't just any workers; they're what Florida identifies as the Creative Class. These are the elites of the knowledge economy -- artists, scientists, financial analysts, computer programmers. The type of people who create for a living. The type of people who work at the type of companies most cities spend millions in tax breaks trying to attract.

Where they end up going, companies end up following.

The paradigm has shifted, Florida discovered. Instead of workers moving to places where businesses are located, the businesses have begun following workers to the places they call home.

That makes cities as vital as they've ever been. Despite the lure of telecommuting, the rise of virtual companies and the ever increasing mobility of the workforce, he said, cities are as important to the knowledge-based economy as they were when more of the workforce was employed by factories.

Now, though, instead of a city succeeding simply because it has access to raw materials or a transportation network or cheap labor, success stems from having a surfeit of the type of employees successful companies seek.

"Creative people, in turn, don't just cluster where the jobs are," Florida wrote. "They cluster in places that are centers of creativity and also where they like to live."

These are places marked by diversity, by tolerance for ethnic and sexual differences, by a widespread embrace of technology, by "authentic and unique" nightlife, by a general openness to welcome creative people, ranging from the street performer to the computer programer.

"Fomenting creative activity is obviously crucial, and U.S. regions that have done it best thus far do not accomplish it just by building stadiums, recruiting factories or retail chains or starting business incubators," Florida wrote. "The creative process flourishes in places that provide the broad ecosystem which nurtures and supports creativity and channels it into innovation, new firm formation and ultimately economic growth and rising living standards."


Creating the creative

Athens and Florence in historic days, New York and San Francisco over the past century and Austin, Seattle, Dublin, Ireland, and Toronto in recent years -- all cities that have created creative environments and seen their economies prosper thereby.

"I think it's a largely commonsensical idea," said Rod Frantz, president of the Richard Florida Creativity Group. "When someone leaves a small town, it's not usually for another small town. People want to explore; they want an adventure."

So making a city amiable to the creative class means making it in some way cooler, in some way more adventuresome, less like the traditional small towns of old.

This led to some interesting discoveries about cool cities, those that tend to attract members of the creative class:

* They have a high level of technology. Often based around universities or research centers, cool cities have a well-educated, technologically advanced population and advanced technological infrastructure.

* They have a high level of creativity, allowing access at a variety of levels. Small galleries and studios allow artists and civilians to mix. Music venues provide a place to experience others' creations, while more intimate and less formal spaces like coffeehouses give amateurs a place to perform.

* They have a high level of tolerance. One unexpected find of Florida's research team was that creative workers are attracted to cities with a high population of gay people. Non-gay members of the creative class prefer cities with a high degree of tolerance, Florida believes, in part because of their mobility: When creative people move to yet another new city, they want to think they'll be welcomed.

There's a host of other amenities -- often different from the traditional ones cities tout -- that creative cities often offer:

Members of the creative class tend to like participating in sports rather than watching them, leading creative cities to build bike paths rather than football stadiums. They like "organic and indigenous street-level culture," making small music venues more user than concert halls. Less structured work hours leads the creative class to appreciate nightlife extending far into the evening.

An economy can't be built on the backs of "street guitarists with long hair and ripped jeans," Florida acknowledges, but the presence of such performers attracts those who do have a larger impact on the tax base. The creative class is made up of "/" people: researcher/musician, programer/artist. The presence of those who focus on artists' endeavours creates an atmosphere where people who do art part-time can fit in.

A key difference between fostering a creative class and other forms of economic development: Although businesses may eventually relocate to a cool city, the coolness itself cannot be imported.

Some cities see Florida's ideas as "the next aquarium, the next convention center," said Frantz -- a way to jazz up a city to lure companies from elsewhere -- but "it's not like you need to steal creative people from somewhere else."

"You have a wealth of creativity in Jacksonville," he said. "You need to throw gas on your own flame."

By creating an environment that nurtures creativity and allows imagination to flourish, he said, entrepreneurs and other members of the creative class are more likely to stay in an area, rather than taking their talent elsewhere.


The Mount Clemens model

The idea of cool cities has been embraced by municipalities across the country, with places like Memphis, Tampa and Cincinnati leading the charge. Florida's ideas have gained perhaps the most traction, however, in the state of Michigan, a place probably better known for being cold than being cool.

In September, Gov. Jennifer Granholm reacted to reports that young people have been fleeing the state in droves by asking mayors to convene "cool cities" advisory groups to encourage young people to stay.

"Our younger generations hold the key to our economic future," Granholm said. "When young people leave Michigan, they take with them their talent, job skills, solid educations, and economic growth potential. We're going right to the source to find out what will make them want to stay."

Hundreds of cities have set up commissions and thousands of visitors have filled out an online survey set up by the state. The consensus: People want to live in cities that offer a sense of places, provide good jobs, welcome new residents and are built around a thriving downtown area.

One city that's embraced the idea is Mount Clemens, a riverfront community about 25 miles from Detroit that used to be a well-known spa resort. That business has faded since the early 1900s, and Mount Clemens is now pinning its hopes on the transformation of its downtown.

The downtown renaissance has been spurred by a mixture of big projects and little touches, said Kent Kukuk, executive director of the Mt. Clemens Downtown Development Authority, ranging from zoning changes to attract restaurants -- there's now 30, up from three a decade ago -- to installation of public artwork -- "Some of it I understand, some of it I don't," the downtown developer said.

One recent addition to the downtown area: Checkerboards. The city decided to place some checkerboard tables around the central city and now, Kukuk said, chess junkies are filling the downtown at lunchtime and on weekends.

For Michigan as a whole, said Maura Cambell, a spokesperson with Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Growth, the next step is getting more private entities more involved in the process. "We think government can be a conduit to cool," she said. "We don't think government can mandate cool."


Can we be cool?

So what does all of that mean for Jacksonville? What's the chance of the First Coast becoming the Cool Coast?

On paper, at least, it looks like an uphill battle. Florida's Creativity Index puts the city in 143rd place, ranking it below Memphis and Grand Rapids, Mich., and far below other cities in the state such as Tampa, Miami and Orlando. Only 28.83 percent of its employees are in the Creative Class, and less than 10 percent are "super creative."

This ranking stems from Jacksonville's low placement on a number of the scales Florida uses to compare the characteristics of 49 large metropolitan areas:

* The city's slowly growing immigration populations puts in 34th place on the Melting Pot Index.

* Although the city comes in 24th on the Gay Index, it's in dead last place on the Bohemian Index, which measures the numbers of writers, designers, musicians and other creative folk who call the city home.

* Jacksonville is also near the bottom -- 41st place -- on the Diversity Index

* The First Coast also has to deal with other perceived negatives, such as being listed by Men's Fitness magazine as one the Top 25 fattest regions in the country, a characterization that can turn off the more health conscious creative class

But the city's appeal to creative types might be growing, as shown by things like the popularity among both artists and spectators of things like the Art Walk Downtown, a program that gets art into public spaces downtown on the first Wednesday of each month

"We like helping artists break out into the mainstream," said Virginia Readion, one of the owners of London Bridge, an English pub downtown.

In fact, the existence of places like London Bridge -- and Fuel. and Art Bar, and the soon-to-be-opened Cafe Muse, and a host of small galleries setting up shop in Springfield -- might point to a growing embrace of creativity and a growing desire to serve the needs of the creative class.

"People are more than ready to have downtown come alive," Readion said. "This can be a wonderful downtown again."

Among all the other projects that Thorin and Michaels are working on is a little black-covered pamphlet called, appropriately enough, the Jacksonville Black Book. The 16-page booklet is a guide to "the best alternatives Jacksonville has to offer," from nightclubs and art galleries to sound studios, thrift shops and tattoo parlors.

Enough people would be interested in what started out as their personal phone list that the duo figured it was time to print the booklet. Two or three years ago, there weren't that many people looking for art galleries. Two or three years ago, something like the Artwalk would never have happened.

"Jacksonville is still very young, is still finding its legs," Michaels said. "But it's slowly building. Jacksonville has always been a slow growth city, but I think we could see an arts explosion."



About

This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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