Stay or Go? Which comes first, good jobs or a cool culture?

The Lansing skyline

The Lansing skyline

The Unenjoyment Rate

The common wisdom is that jobs must come first. With enough good jobs, a city can achieve a critical mass of educated, upscale consumers sufficient to support the cool shops and great restaurants that give a community its culture and character. Traditional development theory rested on the idea that attracting Google is what helps Ann Arbor become a fun city with its wide-ranging roster of eclectic eateries – Zingerman’s, Seva, Cafe Zola and the Fleetwood Diner.

But there is growing evidence that the reverse is true – cities with great culture do better at attracting companies who want to keep their educated, upscale workers happy. In the Washington Monthly article on the Rise of the Creative Class, Professor Richard Florida challenges the prevailing wisdom that cities need to attract upscale middle-aged couples with children. In the information age, you need to attract the creative class, and that often means young people.

. . . less than a quarter of all American households consist of traditional nuclear families, and focusing solely on their needs has been a losing strategy, one that neglects a critical engine of economic growth: young people. Young workers have typically been thought of as transients who contribute little to a city’s bottom line. But in the creative age, they matter for two reasons. First, they are workhorses. They are able to work longer and harder, and are more prone to take risks, precisely because they are young and childless. In rapidly changing industries, it’s often the most recent graduates who have the most up-to-date skills. Second, people are staying single longer. The average age of marriage for both men and women has risen some five years over the past generation. College-educated people postpone marriage longer than the national averages. Among this group, one of the fastest growing categories is the never-been-married. To prosper in the creative age, regions have to offer a people climate that satisfies this group’s social interests and lifestyle needs, as well as address those of other groups.”

The goal is to create Artistan and LGBTistan, and not just Nerdistan. (Anything is better than viewing Lansing as Oldfartistan, dominated by white-haired white guys playing golf – the vision proposed by a group of college students in a focus group years ago.)

The Technology Innovation Center offers answers

Making Lansing a Cool City

Governor Jennifer Granholm deserves credit for her much-maligned 2004 pilot “Cool Cities” initiative, which embraced Professor Florida’s TIDE (Talent-Innovation-Diversity-Environment) principles. Unfortunately, critics succeeded in undermining support for such efforts by demonizing the program as a silly boondoggle. (John LaPlante, listed as an ‘adjunct scholar’ at the Mackinac Center was quick to paint Cool Cities with the brush of Cold War socialism, as an example of “centralized planning.) Modest funding from the pilot project in 2005 provided support to Lansing’s Allen Street Neighborhood and the Stadium District.

Florida argues that if you build it (a cool city), they (the creative class) will come. In Lansing, Old Town is cool, but tiny. But it’s so far from downtown that it’s almost a separate village, and visitors rarely find their way there. Though I can’t find a citation to prove it, Lansing’s Eastside neighborhood reportedly has one of the highest concentration of gays in the United States, which Professor Florida says is essential in building a cool city. But it is hard to see their impact on the overall culture of the community. As Jane Jacobs explained in her book “The Death and Life of American Cities,” the things that make cities livable are simple, but essential.

The Clemens Street area periodically erupts into Bohemia. Years ago, the Bananafarm art collective and bands including the legendary Vomit Pigs enlivened the community. More recently, Gone Wired and the Everybody Reads Bookstore on Michigan have become a hub of art and activism. Yet raw-food restaurant Magdalena’s Tea House tried valiantly but failed to keep its doors open. (Former co-owner Miko Fossum says she may try to re-open in Ann Arbor someday.)

However, a burning question that many of us have is why Lansing in the Bernero era seems eager to squander its development dollars on blandness. Though we sincerely wish it well, the new Lansing City Market has all the charm of a pole barn. And while hundreds of thousands of dollars of economic development money were injected into a tony corporate restaurant like Troppo’s more than once, a community anchor like Gone Wired struggles.

What does that say our values, as a community and as consumers?

A restructuring, not a recession

There is good reason to question whether the old models of urban development still hold in this new economy. The United States may have staved off another Great Depression, but there is growing concern that this isn’t just another recession, but a new normal where we all have to learn to live with less.

For too many years, Michigan ignored the reality that all those lost manufacturing jobs weren’t coming back. Perhaps we should reflect on that lesson as we pour more of our money and our energy into luring high-tech firms here. Even if those strategies work, the question becomes whether they can ever pay back the investment.

Shining star Google once boasted it would create 1,000 jobs in Ann Arbor, and it currently claims 250 employees, but the real number is reputed to be 204. TechSmith in Okemos outside Lansing had only 170 employees in 2007 when it announced a $20 million expansion in 2007 that has since been dramatically scaled back.

Numbers like these will never replace the 1 million good jobs this state has lost in the auto industry.

Bonnie Bucqueroux retired from Michigan State University's School of Journalism to experiment with online publications, including Lansing Online News. She is also co-president (with Susan Masten) of Lansing Area NOW.

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