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Building on Buzz

What is the city doing to keep the best and the brightest in Richmond?

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According to Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Richmond's creative class — the artists, innovators, educators and techies said to spur our economy — has risen to 31.3 percent of our population. Is the city doing all it can to capitalize on that wealth of talent?

Who knew that when Richard Florida wrote “The Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002, he'd spark a whole new way of looking at cities? He makes a case that creative workers are the real economic engine of the country. If you want to see why some cities are prospering and others falling behind, he says, look to four factors within a city: the percentage of creative workers, diversity as measured by the Bohemian index, the number of patents per capita and the extent of high-tech industry.

Florida says that what creative people seek — diverse experiences and individuals, varied entertainment and nightlife, and outdoor offerings such as biking trails and urban parks — are what cities must cultivate in order to prosper in a 21st-century economy.

But what connects economic growth with ethnic restaurants, art galleries, hiking trails and outdoor concerts? For the many city leaders paying for Florida's seminars, the answer is that cities must create these amenities to attract the creative class. In doing so, they will spur economic growth.

Richmond scores fairly high on Florida's creative list, No. 17 among medium-sized cities. And that's unsurprising — Richmond has developed quite the creative buzz. It's been coming together the last few years: the independent film festivals; the wildly popular First Fridays Art Walk; the ballooning number of outdoor music offerings; the blossoming of the annual Folk Festival; the proliferation of trails on both sides of the river, making possible the nationally famous XTerra triathlon over trails and river rocks; the palette of people on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, with students from around the globe; the wealth of ethnic restaurants, groceries and immigrants; and, lastly, the recent and earthy growth of farmers' markets around the city, with plans for more. All these things suggest a vibrancy and healthfulness that bode well for the city.

Does it matter which came first? Is it the growth of amenities, the nurturing of the parks and the increase in the coolness factor that's brought the young condo crowd to the city? Or did the modest but sustained gain in jobs (Richmond's job growth in 2009 was 1.46 percent, compared with a national average of 1.3 percent) bring the creative class, which increased the demand for such amenities?

It makes sense that cities full of thinkers, problem solvers and innovators would be fertile ground for successful businesses and institutions. It's not the old industrial cities that are prospering, but rather the college towns and the urban centers that are energetic, edgy, diverse and educated.

Yet our city leaders continue to focus their attention and resources on big-ticket, bricks-and-mortar projects rather than on the rich resource of our creative class — especially our young people. The city has spent roughly half a billion dollars on downtown projects, including the Greater Richmond Convention Center, the CenterStage performing arts center, the 6th Street Marketplace and the projects of the Broad Street Community Development Authority. Critics of these projects and their results are too many to enumerate here.

Yet what dependably brings people downtown? First Fridays and the art galleries, the newly sprouted cafes, the fancy restaurants and bars, and the festivals. Condos near the river attract prosperous singles and empty nesters looking for something more exciting than the suburbs. Amenities for them are growing but inadequate. For example, there's still no movie theater downtown and grocery stores are sparse.

City leaders seem to appreciate VCU for its bricks-and-mortar development in the heart of the city, which will continue with $1 billion in new buildings planned by 2020. But what of its graduates? What is the city doing to keep them here?

VCU is a massive incubator for new members of the creative class. With 32,000 students, it's ranked the fourth most diverse student body in the country and among the top 200 schools overall in the world. It graduates thousands in medicine, engineering, business, education, science, and the arts and humanities. Many of these graduates have come to appreciate urban life. What is the city doing to keep them from migrating to New York or Los Angeles?

That's what city leaders should be asking themselves before they plan their next big spending binge. What can they do to keep these young musicians, designers, scientists and techies in the city? These are the people who not only will provide the energy and innovation needed in our companies and schools, but also will be happy to spend their paychecks while adding to the Richmond buzz. S

Gayla Mills is a writer, musician and professor at Randolph-Macon College.

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