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Make Charlotte Weird

Richard Florida takes message to the masses

You could call him the ambassador of the weird, and when he spoke in Charlotte last week, important people listened, or at least appeared to. Since his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, was published over a year ago, Carnegie Mellon professor Richard Florida has made a living preaching the economic benefits of attracting the weird to your city. Like he has across the country, Florida attempted last week to challenge the pre-programmed direction in which Charlotte's leaders have been headed in terms of economic development.The $65-a-head symposium was hosted by UNCC's Urban Institute and attracted about 200 people, many of whom were familiar faces from Charlotte's civic booster crowd. An electronic poll of the audience revealed that about 30 percent were bureaucrats, mostly from the mid-to upper levels of city and county government. Some were clearly interested in what Florida had to say. Others, clearly bored, spent the bulk of the seminar cavorting about in the hall, talking among themselves.

Like their peers around the country, Charlotte's leaders have wanted to attract certain kinds of people to the Queen City: successful married couples in their 30s and 40s, people with children, stable jobs and middle-to-upper level incomes. Fifteen to 20 years ago, that was fine. But not anymore, Florida told the crowd. Less than a quarter of American households now consist of traditional nuclear families, but cities continue to focus on those people's needs, ignoring the most critical engine of economic growth in modern society -- young, innovative, highly educated people, those who make up what Florida calls the "creative class." In a modern, high-tech world of rapidly changing markets, they are the segment of the workforce on whose efforts Florida believes corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend.

"Census numbers don't lie," Florida says. "Middle-aged yuppies are no longer driving the economy."

Florida claims the creative class now includes some 38.3 million Americans, roughly 30 percent of the entire US workforce, up from 10 percent at the turn of the 20th century and around 20 percent in the early 1980s. These people, he says, have considerable spending power. In 1999, the average salary for a creative classer was nearly $50,000 compared to $28,000 for a working-class member and $22,000 for a service-class worker, which explains why regions with large numbers of creative class members are becoming increasingly affluent.

Florida also believes that businesses, particularly technology businesses, will move to where their labor force lives. So by attracting the young, creative talent it employs, Charlotte could in turn attract more high-tech businesses, which he believes are the economic must-have of the future. Because the young creative minds that fuel the technology industry often belong to those who grew up on the fringes of "acceptable" society, they look for signs that a community accepts "non-standard" people like them. In other words, they want a place they can feel welcome in.

In that department, Florida says the Queen City still has a way to go. Florida told the crowd that overall, Charlotte was a low-middle of the pack achiever when it comes to the four statistical indexes he uses to measure how creative-class friendly the Charlotte region is. Overall, this area ranked 86th out of 331 regions around the country, which puts us in the 74th percentile, about a "C." Charlotte ranked 72 in attracting talent. Florida said that overall, Charlotte is a net importer of talent -- meaning we gain more educated young talent than we lose -- but that that talent isn't trained in the technology sector. In technology, Charlotte ranked a 71 out of 331. In tolerance, an important factor for drawing the creative class, Charlotte ranked even lower with a 69.

Florida believes a high concentration of gay people has always been an important draw for the creative class because it indicates that a place has a high level of acceptance for those who live outside the norm. In 1998 he met Gary Gates, a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon who happened to be studying the location patterns of gays at the same time Florida was studying the location choices of high-tech industries and talented people. When the two men compared their lists of the country's high-tech spots and high gay concentrations, the lists were surprisingly similar. Other measures Florida came up with, like the Bohemian Index, a measure of places with high concentrations of artists, writers and performers, produced similar results.

Perhaps because Florida finds the influence of the gay community so important -- or perhaps because two gay activist groups were among the sponsors of the event -- Florida spent more time dwelling on the importance of gays to attracting the creative class than he did in his book. Florida was fairly outspoken on the importance of domestic partner benefits to attracting and maintaining the gay community, a contentious issue the Charlotte city council is currently striving to find a way not to deal with.

Those who've read his book or his previous interview with Creative Loafing might have noticed that Florida also toned his anti-sports arena rhetoric wa-a-y down for the event, perhaps because someone had the foresight to warn him that the bureaucrats who accounted for close to a third of his audience had spent the last five years fighting for a new basketball arena. While Florida has referred to public expenditures on sports stadiums as a "waste" in other interviews, in Charlotte he said that if it was important to build one that folks should try to do it with a minimum of divisiveness.

After the symposium, CL tracked down Rod Frantz, president of The Richard Florida Creative Group, to ask him about this apparent contradiction.

"What I think Richard was expressing was sensitivity to the divisiveness of the whole stadium issue in Charlotte," Frantz said. "That cities continue to believe that these mammoth projects somehow confer "world class' status despite the statistical data indicating that they are of negligible economic development value is what is so baffling. However, if a team owner or a region determines to build such a project, that's fine. Growing cities like Charlotte can afford to gamble on large projects of what we feel are negligible assets, but when they are funded with taxpayer money after being defeated in referendums, the resulting disenfranchisement of citizens can do untold harm."

Frantz added that stadiums are not draws for the creative class.

Florida's quest to educate the world about the creative class started almost by accident. After watching businesses and talented young people leave his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, Florida began to wonder where they were going and why. Over the past decade, Pittsburgh had launched programs to diversify the region's economy and attract high tech industry. It rebuilt its downtown, invested in its airport, and built a sprawling new sports complex for the Steelers and the Pirates. Between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, the city is the US's sixth largest center for college students and a national magnet for university research funding. Pittsburgh is home to museums and cultural venues of national caliber and even has affordable housing. Yet one of the most popular destinations for Pittsburgh's highly coveted young college grads was Austin, Texas, a place that at the time had a small airport, no professional sports teams, and lacked a major symphony, ballet, opera or museum comparable to Pittsburgh's. So Florida set out to figure out why these young people were eschewing Pittsburgh for places like Austin, Boston, Washington DC, and Seattle.

The answer seems to be that these places "get it," or understand the importance of the lifestyle amenities that attract the creative class.

In an interview with Creative Loafing, Florida said that not once during any of his focus groups and interviews did members of the creative class mention professional sports playing any role in their choice of where to live and work. Instead, he said that one of the most important lifestyle amenities these people wanted was a vibrant, varied nightlife with a wide mix of options, a sign, Florida said, that a city "gets it." Chain stores, chain restaurants and run-of-the mill nightclubs don't cut it because the creative class craves the unique and the authentic. They want interesting music venues, neighborhood art galleries and theaters, performance spaces and a teeming street culture that is a blend of cafes, sidewalk musicians and bistros.

Austin, a place that "gets it" in Florida's opinion, has summed up this whole concept with its three-word economic development slogan: "Keep Austin Weird."

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