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Creative Growth


The sermon was based not on platitudes but on carefully calibrated data and numerous real-world examples, all documented in "The Rise of the Creative Class" (Basic Books). Florida's research shows that flourishing cities Austin, San Francisco and Boston have "low entry barriers" where visionary entrepreneurs (like, say, former "weirdo" Bill Gates) can plug in easily.

Successful cities share common traits, but Florida doesn't just isolate the phenomenon, he instructs cities on how to lure and keep creative talent.

Out: Fake downtowns, mall-like structures and closed-door environments. In: tolerant, eclectic places that have a range of recreational options, lifestyles and cultures.

Pacing and bobbing, well-armed with anecdotes, preaching inclusion and diversity, Florida did come off like a preacher. He'd done this before. And with the wide-eyed sincerity of a repentant Sunday morning pew, there was rapture from the distinguished Richmond congregation. Heads nodded, books were sold and everyone from successful businessmen to the mayor himself concurred enthusiastically during the Q&A period: "Yes, Professor ...?"

Apparently, Southern hospitality was at a premium. Matching key points in the professor's presentation with Richmond reality before and after the applause, a sensible person would wonder if this crowd really understood what they were clapping for.

Florida: Don't destroy historic properties in the name of downtown development. Cultivate history, don't create artificial environments.

Richmond: A six-block chunk of historic Jackson Ward was destroyed for the very setting of Florida's speech. The renovation of the Greater Richmond Convention Center, at a cost of $170 million, was promoted by civic leaders despite national convention attendance dropping significantly in recent years — and despite its destroying parts of one of America's most endangered historic areas.

Florida: A community should nurture a vibrant music scene — see the resulting economies of Seattle, Austin, San Francisco, et al.

Richmond: Burdened with a meals tax on restaurants and an admission tax on concerts, not to mention the heavy-handed tactics of the local ABC board, the city of Richmond has hardly been "EZ 2 Love" to its music scene. Ten days after Florida's speech, City Council unanimously renewed an ordinance that requires restaurants showcasing music events to hire a security guard (aka off-duty police officer) for crowds of more than 100. This law (one more monetary drain on clubs and musicians) also transformed the city manager into a de-facto Nightlife Czar with the ruling power to shut down any club, anytime.

Florida: A community that accepts its gay citizens sends strong signals that it truly values tolerance and diversity.

Richmond: Virginia's "Crimes Against Nature" statute is still on the books, readily evoked by anyone with an anti-gay agenda. Weeks before Florida's speech, Richmond/Chesterfield state Delegate Bradley Marrs, supported by many in the local business community, declared in the Virginian-Pilot that "homosexuality is a form of sexual misconduct that is a crime." These comments follow a very controversial bust of Richmond's thriving gay nightclub scene two years ago. Signals?

Florida: Instead of taxpayers funding high-culture events that benefit the elite few, a community should nurture its local arts scene.

Richmond: While millions are poured into big downtown projects, more than 100 artists from Richmond's Shockoe Bottom Arts Center are being displaced from their longtime space this summer. The artists are being rescued by the town fathers of nearby Petersburg, who lured the expatriate Richmonders away in order to help rejuvenate their downtown.

Contrast Petersburg's approach with Richmond's. The board of directors for a proposed multimillion-dollar "Richmond Performing Arts Center" includes CEOs, lawyers, tobacco execs, politicians and newspaper publishers but negligible representation from local performing artists. The board also proposes raising the city's meals tax to help pay for construction. In short, Richmond's hope for the future is a downtown arts complex to be built with little or no input from hometown artists, and with additional taxes on the local restaurant and entertainment industry.

Florida talks about communities that "don't get it." Their leaders "pay lip service to the need to attract talent, but continue to pour resources into underwriting big box retailers, subsidizing downtown malls, recruiting call centers and squandering precious taxpayer dollars on extravagant stadium complexes. Or they try to create facsimiles of neighborhoods or retail districts, replacing the old and authentic with the new and generic, and in doing so, drive the creative class away."

Sound familiar?

There are positive developments. The Greater Richmond Partnership has started what it calls "a creative incubator," a good first step. But better networking isn't going to solve this city's problems How many failed downtown projects and contradictory public policies is it going to take before Richmond recognizes the serious leadership gap in its midst?

"The 1950s are over," Florida said in January. "Some places can't accept that."

Months later, with the applause long faded, our speaker pontificated on Richmond's vision. "Arts complexes may provide some infrastructure but they are far from the solution," he says. "Communities need street-level arts and music scenes, and the energy they generate to be successful."

I'm sure Tobacco Town USA will keep those thoughts in mind as it plans and brands its future, Doc. In the meantime, those in Richmond's own "creative class" might be better off contemplating Petersburg. S

Don Harrison is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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