The Art of Economic Development

Time was when economic development meant targeting favored industries and sending out recruiters with demographic data and glossy brochures in hand and tax incentives in tow. Those days aren’t history, but the economic-development envoys are now equipped with slick videos and Power Point presentations.

They also know that industrial-park chic will no longer do. In fact, unless you’re a New York or a Washington, you’d be well advised to have a solid strategy back home that positions your market as a beacon to creative people.

That was the candid message that Carnegie Mellon University Economics Professor Richard Florida brought to the Tampa Bay area last spring. Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” preaches the gospel of creative buzz — inventorying and marshalling all the ways an area can encourage creative environments. Critical spinoffs include reputations for tolerance, diversity and entrepreneurial opportunity.

Call it quality of life as economic-development gambit. Dr. Florida’s mantra is that modern economic centers can’t afford to be culturally challenged or indifferent to innovation.

“What I think is exciting about the Richard Florida phenomenon is that it is helping the business community wake up to the idea that arts and culture matter,” assesses Paul Wilborn, Tampa’s Creative Industries Manager. “It’s not just icing, but part of the cake.”

Most prominent among local true believers is Tampa’s Deanne Roberts. Her response to Florida’s presentation was to become the driving force behind CreativeTampaBay.

CTB is a movement with 501(c)3 (nonprofit) status. It has a Web site, an eclectic, 35-member board of directors, plenty of volunteers, revivalist enthusiasm and donated services and office space. It expedites research; brainstorms across disciplines; cross-promotes the market; publishes a weekly newsletter; holds salon-type gatherings; makes regional presentations; and helps sponsor cultural events. Its regional, three-fold mission is to accelerate the convergence of a dynamic entrepreneurial and technology climate, a thriving arts environment and vibrant places for people to connect.

“We want to become more attractive to innovative people and companies,” explains Roberts, the president of Roberts Communications & Marketing and immediate past chairwoman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. “The 21st century jobs are going to take ‘knowledge workers’ — creative thinkers. If you can attract that workforce to your market, the companies will follow. That’s the paradigm switch that’s occurring that Richard Florida identified. In the old days, we chased companies. It was based on the port and the weather, and so on. Now all that still remains important, but the element that is critical is the people.”

And a number of those people — from software tekkies to sculptors — are already here. According to Roberts, some 29 percent of Bay Area workers qualify as the “creative class.”

In January CTB conducted six focus groups of young professionals (24-35) to find out what brought them here, and what it takes to keep them here. It’s part of national research — dubbed the “Young and Restless Study” — that also includes Memphis, Portland (OR), Philadelphia, Providence and Richmond.

“This is a very, very competitive demographic to attract to your market,” underscores Roberts. “Right now they are clustering in Austin and Atlanta.”

The onus, she stresses, is on the Bay Area to retain its best and brightest; woo back those who went away to college; and attract its share of mobile, young professionals.

In effect, CTB’s role is the same as more established counterparts in cities such as Cleveland (“Cool Cleveland”) and Memphis (“Memphis Manifesto”).

“It’s incorrect to assume that we want to be, say, Memphis or Seattle,” says Michelle Bauer, the president of CTB as well as executive director of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. “We want to exploit in the most positive way the unique and authentic assets we have right here. We need to connect and communicate our assets to ourselves and the rest of the world.”

Adds board member Tony Collins, vice president, Tucker/Hall public relations: “People think this is just about artists. It’s really about how we harness the engine that will drive the next economic era.”

Emerging Leaders

One of CreativeTampaBay’s strategies is to attract and retain young professionals and develop a base of future leaders imbued with “Creative Class” religion. To that end, The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce is cooperating with its new Emerge Tampa initiative.

It’s sort of a junior Leadership Tampa for those 21 to 35. And 21 is no arbitrary number. That’s the age of most college seniors.

Chamber membership is not required. Those interested can join via the Internet.

Emerge Tampa will feature four programs: Voice/public affairs opportunities; Connectivity/community affairs opportunities; Growth/career development; and Cool Stuff/meet-and-greet events tied to arts, sports and community outreach.

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