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October 06. 2002 6:30AM

Creative people may help cities thrive


Sun staff writer

It's Thursday night at Common Grounds and the University Avenue coffeehouse is packed. This evening's attraction is a spoken word performance to benefit the local independent media center - and one of the main attractions is a man in a skimpy dress and a "human fly" mask, performing a monologueabout his sexual fantasies.
Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Performing a staged reading, Jessica
Arnold and the band, Free Keys, entertains
the audience at the Common Grounds Thursday
evening during a benefit for the Civic Media Center.
The benefit, titled Spoken Sex Words II, is the ninth
part of the crookedletter (that is how it's spelled)
cabaret series, benefitting the Civic Media Center.

To some people, it's just another weeknight in Gainesville. But to urban planner Richard Florida, an event like this is an important economic indicator.

"Places where the weird and the uncommon are accepted are places with a social ecosystem that attracts creative people" Florida said. "And the creative class is going to be the force that drives our society in this century."

Florida is a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pennsylvania and the author of "Rise of the Creative Class," a new book that has become a hot topic in cities around the country. In it, Florida argues that cities will need gay bars and punk bands - not smokestacks and tax breaks - if they hope to cash in on economic growth in the 21st century. The nation's economic future, Florida says, is in the hands of a growing "creative class" of workers who want to live in tolerant, artsy towns surrounded by open-minded people. And Gainesville is near the top of his list of small American cities poised to attract those workers.

"University towns in general are going to be at an advantage," Florida said.

Florida believes America's economy is growing increasingly dependent on workers who "add economic value through their creativity." His "creative class" of workers includes a broad range of professions, from traditional artists and scientists to software developers, people in medical and legal professions and some management and sales jobs.

By Florida's estimation, the number of people in this creative class has boomed during the past century, with creative jobs making up 10 percent of the work force in 1900 and 30 percent of the work force today. As the economy grows more dependent on those workers, Florida says, high-tech and high-wage companies have begun to move to cities where creative workers want to live - places with a vibrant arts scene and a tolerant social environment.

A starting point
Florida's theory grew out of his search for answers to why the Internet company Lycos - a spinoff of Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh - left the city to set up its headquarters in Boston. With a world-class research university not far away, and city leaders eager to attract Internet businesses, Pittsburgh originally seemed like a good location for the company, but Lycos couldn't recruit enough qualified employees there.

Florida found that Pittsburgh's Rust Belt reputation - and a stodgy, 1950s-style corporate culture - were driving away the city's young creative professionals. And those people, he found, were flocking to places like Boston, San Francisco and Austin, Texas, where they could wear their nose rings to work and retire to coffeehouses in their off-work hours.

Soon Florida met a doctoral student who was working on a study of the migration patterns of gay people. When the two compared notes, they found that many of the centers of growth in high-tech were places where the gay population was booming.

"Gay people have traditionally been outside the mainstream," Florida said. "Communities that have welcomed them are open to all types of innovation."

He later came up with his Bohemian Index, a measure of the number of painters, poets and other artists in a population. And he found that, over the course of the 1990s, the Gay Index and the Bohemian Index were good indicators of a region's future economic growth. In fact, he says, they worked better than traditional indicators, which measured things like the number of college-educated people in a region.

Ranking the cities
Using those indicators and other data, Florida ranked 268 cities across the country on their appeal to the creative class. And those rankings show Gainesville as the nation's second-most-creative city with a population less than 250,000.

That ranking has some city officials declaring victory.

"This is something we need to take seriously," said City Commissioner Warren Nielsen, a proponent of New Urbanist development policies. Nielsen has long argued that in order to attract healthy economic growth, the city needs a robust street-level culture, not more broad highways and big retail stores.

Some are skeptical
Not everyone is so sure Florida has hit the mark.

"Creativity is great," City Commissioner Tony Domenech said. "But I think when people get excited about these ideas, they kind of lose track of the basics."

Domenech says the city should focus on providing the infrastructure that businesses need to thrive - infrastructure like convenient, passable roads. He points to Interstate 75 as an example of a road project that brought new business to the area.

Commissioner Ed Braddy also has doubts about Florida's findings.

"Sounds like a trickle-down theory to me," he said. "And I'm not sure how the prosperity is going to trickle down."

Braddy wants the city to attract more industry, to provide good-paying jobs for local residents who are stuck in low-paying service jobs. Attracting more "creative class" workers may stimulate the area's economy, Braddy says, but it could leave many local residents in burger-flipping careers. And he worries that a study like Florida's could lead the city to be complacent about looking for good jobs.

"Hard-working people who are struggling don't need us to turn our backs on them because someone declared that we live in a utopian village," he said.

Florida says the days of the high-wage industrial job are just about over.

"These jobs used to be here, but now they're going to Mexico and Malaysia," he said. "They're not coming back."

Florida's solution for the problem of low-wage service jobs? Pay the burger-flippers more.

"Industrial jobs aren't by their nature good jobs," he said. "A steel mill is an unpleasant, dangerous place, but steelworkers get paid well because they unionized and fought for good pay. This is going to have to happen in the service sector."

Florida is now touring the country, talking to civic leaders about how to make their cities more attractive to the creative class.

"For any city with a university, my message is: Protect your university," he said. "Too many cities have let ghettos grow up around campus, and have lost touch with the university. If you do that, you'll find that people graduate and leave."

Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@ gvillesun.com.