The “creative class” was supposed to be the key to revitalizing Greensboro’s economy. So what happened?
“So what are you trying to find out? What do you want to know?” asks Greensboro filmmaker Harvey Robinson, as he sits on his kitchen floor, struggling to replace the video card in his computer.
I’m sitting in Robinson’s kitchen, where he films his internet show “Harvey’s Kitchen,” a series of interviews and performances by local personalities and musicians. I’ve come to interview him for an article about the state of Greensboro’s creative class in the present economic crisis, and I’m fumbling around, trying to come up with questions that illuminate what I’m discovering to be a rather vague subject.
“Now that everyone’s the media, how do you make money?” I finally stammer, referencing a familiar concept of the internet age.
“We don’t know,” says Harvey, laughing. “It’ll take a creative mind to figure out how to make money in the new world.
“The only way to make money is to be an artist and make content that people are willing to pay for.”
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The only way to make money is to be an artist and make content that people are willing to pay for.
That’s worlds away from the home I was brought up in. Get a good job with good benefits, preferably with a government agency; that was my family’s philosophy. We didn’t have a lot of self-employed artists coming over for dinner when I was growing up. б
But it’s the world that increasing numbers of us, myself included, are going to be living in. So, as Big Tony would say, where’s the money?
The money, according to Richard Florida, who is currently a professor at the University of Toronto, comes when cities attract members of this “creative class,” a somewhat disparate group that includes research scientists, software developers and professionals as well as artists, musicians and writers.
Florida’s theories, articulated in his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class, can be roughly summarized thusly: Certain cities, because of their mix of social amenities, diverse cultures and investment in technology, tend to attract talented entrepreneurs whose cutting-age creativity fuels economic growth in the post-industrial era. His examples included San Francisco, Seattle and Austin, Texas.
Florida came to Greensboro to speak in October of 2003 , after his ideas piqued the interest of local business leaders.
“We were grappling with how to adjust our way of doing business in light of a changed economy,” remembers Dabney Sanders of Action Greensboro, who organized Florida’s1visit to the city. “We were looking for new and creative ways to do the business economic development. Several of the members of the Action Greensboro operating group had heard of Richard’s book and work and thought it would be interesting to bring him to Greensboro.”
To prepare for his visit, the organization set up four different task forces to study Florida’s “3 Ts” -talent, technology, tolerance – his formula for successful cities.
“Greensboro didn’t want one of (his) canned speeches that he was making all across the country,” says Sanders, who’s now project manager for the organization’s Downtown Greenway, a 5-mile “urban trail” around downtown Greensboro. “We wanted specific information to help Greensboro, so we put together task forces of community residents to study and assess Greensboro’s strengths and weaknesses using Florida’s ‘3 T’ model, plus we added an additional T: territorial assets, which we thought was a key component to attracting the creative class. We had hundreds of volunteers work for months ahead of Richard’s visit so we could present a report to him of a community snapshot.”
One of those who took part in the city’s “creative character” initiatives (the word “class” was thought by some to carry too much historical baggage) was Jim Boitnott, CEO of Notion Music, a company that specializes in music composition software and one that could be regarded as a textbook example of the kind of 21st century business that Florida was talking about.
“We were taking the ideals Florida talked about and looking at ways we could kickstart them in Greensboro,” says Boitnott of the initiative, sitting in the company’s oft1ces in downtown Greensboro. As for the company, which launched in 2005 but had already moved into the building at the time of the Florida visit, “We fit the concept,” says Boitnott. “It was good timing.”
”[The discussion] shifted dialogue away from traditional industries like textiles to creative opportunities,” says Erik Beerbower, owner/operator of Lyndon Street Artworks, which offers studio space for artists in downtown Greensboro, and another participant in the original initiative. “Florida put the emphasis on the arts as an economic base, whereas before arts were viewed as just a hobby. He showed how they influenced the economy.”
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“It’s not easy to find government data on the creative class because it’s such a catch-all term,” says Andrew Brod, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the Bryan School of Business and Economics at UNCG. “Most people in the creative class have a college degree, and the unemployment rate for college graduates is lower than for those who didn’t go to college. You could say they’re doing less badly” in the present economic conditions.
The “Great Recession” has not been kind to Greensboro or surrounding areas in general. A recent report from the Brookings Institute, a public policy think tank, places Greensboro among the metropolitan areas hardest hit by the economic collapse, mainly due to losses in manufacturing, the local economic engine that it was hoped the creative class would replace.
While the economic axe has fallen hardest on blue-collar workers, no one is safe in the present circumstances, says Brod.
“This recession is putting dents in all industries,” he says. “The creative class is suffering more than in the 2001 recession.
“The decline in manufacturing has been accompanied by a decline in corporate headquarters,” says Brod, using the purchase of Jefferson Pilot by Lincoln Financial Group as an example. “That means fewer corporate executives,” a group that Florida included in the creative class.
“You have to be creative to run a company,” explains Brod. “You’re manipulating concepts to generate profit. The loss of corporate employers means fewer members of the creative class.”
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One member of the creative class who says she’s doing better than “less badly” is Andrea Crouse, owner of Gaia Conceptions, who designs and sells eco-friendly clothing.
“I keep thinking, ‘When is the recession going to hit me?'” says Crouse, who started her business while attending UNCG. “I came about during the recession, so I have no idea if it would be better if we weren’t in one. Would I be doing twice as much business? I don’t know.”
Crouse believes that changing spending patterns due to the recession can work to the advantage of the independent artist.
“People are moving away from the mall mentality,” she says of the products people buy. “It has to be unique, but still have a purpose.”
Beerbower also sees an upside to people reprioritizing how they spend their money.
“The recession hasn’t affected the commission side of art,” he says. “People are still seeking out artists for individual works. There’s more of a sense of ownership if they contribute to the idea of it.”
Still, he says, the slowdown has had an effect.
“Arts are sporadic, and are tied into the national trend of people’s ability to spend,” he says. “People need durable goods, like refrigerators, whereas art is a luxury.”
It helps if one can expand their pool of potential customers beyond what the local economy will support. One of Florida’s T’s, technology, has played a prime role in Crouse’s success; almost all of her sales are online.
“I was featured on Etsy [an online marketplace for handmade items] in March 2008, and my business increased 50 percent,” she says. Crouse says that it would be almost impossible to support herself based solely on local sales of her clothing.
“Most of my sales are in places like California, New York and Colorado,” says Crouse. “I only sell about 20 pieces a year in North Carolina. Because there’s technology here, I can live here without having to make a living here.”
Robinson’s business model is also dependent on the internet, which is why he’s particularly peeved at Time-Warner Cable’s recent attempt to introduce tiered pricing to the local internet market.
“They’re protecting their monopoly with franchise agreements,” says Robinson, co-founder of Monkeywhale.com, a self-described “new media experiment” that brings together filmmakers, musicians, photographers and bloggers to create online content. “They say ‘We’ll put down the broadband in return for sharing fees.’ It looks good, but you’re at the mercy of a monopoly.
“What I’m doing may seem like a maverick thing, but it’s not,” he says of his online show. “The online video phenomenon is increasingly prevalent. When you pitch a TV show in the future, the question you’re going to get is ‘What kind of following do you have online?”‘
I ask him whether Monkeywhale, intentionally or otherwise, is replacing traditional sources of information distribution, such as newspapers and the white-collar, middle-class jobs that went with them.
“I just wanted to be able to put material out there, explore ideas online and serve as PR for a consortium of people” says Robinson, who denies that he’s trying to fill the role of a traditional journalist. “I don’t think I’m doing anything new by interviewing people.”
Still, he says, the pre-online news industry is obsolete.
“The news is decided by the community, and the more connected the community is, the less need for someone at 7 p.m. to tell you what’s going on,” he says. “I can scoop someone using a camera truck and four people.
“In the last election, the politicians couldn’t keep up with technological change,” he says. “Imagine how difficult it will be during the next election, even locally. People are seeing how politicians affect them in real time, via Twitter and Facebook.
“We’re in the middle of something. It’s perpetual flux,” says Robinson. “The more information is available, the more change occurs.”
The technological revolution has not panned out for everyone, however.
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“I’m 53, and I’ve never seen the economy this bad,” says Billy Jones, one-time Greensboro mayoral candidate and former operator of the now-defunct website Blogsboro.com, once billed as “where the real creative class gathers.”
The same advantages that attract entrepreneurs to the internet – low startup costs, no brick-and-mortar expenses, seemingly unlimited visibility – make it hard to earn a living online in the long run, he says, sitting on the deck outside of a Greensboro coffee house. Jones shut down Blogsboro last year, citing insufficient income (Full disclosure: This writer used to have a blog on that site}.
“I jumped into the internet economy back in 2003 [with Blogsboro],” he says, “and wasted a lot of time finding out it didn’t work.
“I started out making money, but it got harder and harder,” says Jones, who now works at a salvage yard while waiting for a new startup to get off the ground. “The cheaper it is to start a business, the more competition you have.”
The present recession didn’t help matters, he says.
“Our online demographic was [people who earn] $35,000 a year or less,” says Jones. “These are the people who lost their internet connections” due to economic hardship.
He’s dismissive of the idea that providing free online content, while making money through advertising, is a viable business model.
“The very idea that people in business would promote such an idea astounds me,” he says. “The advertising model online is pennies on the dollar compared to billboards. There’s no model there to make money.”
In the end, Jones says, the explosion in new media just gives people too many options.
“It’s too easy and too cheap to be entertained in this age,” he says. “When you have market saturation the price has to fall. How do you compete with free?
“There’ll always be exceptions that prove the rule, but those will be one in a million.” He shakes his head. “We need a dose of reality.”
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Robinson, still wrestling with the video card, believes government could do more to ease people’s transition to the brave new world of smaller workplaces and more self-employment.
“The laws haven’t kept up with the trends in small business,” he says. “They’re catered toward the employees of corporations. Why are they structured to make it difficult for someone who’s self-employed? It ‘s not big versus small.”
As for the lack of health insurance that comes with being self-employed, he has a back-to-the-future solution.
“You could be part of a consortium of independent contractors, say electricians, and get breaks on insurance pricing,” similar to the craft guilds of the decidedly un-high tech Middle Ages, organizations whose members provided for each others’ care during periods of illness.
If success in the new creative economy is so hit or miss, I ask Brod, how do the new jobs stack up with the ones they’re supposed to replace, the ones that offered stable long-term employment and defined benefits?
“We’ll have a much less secure workforce” in the future, he says. “The push for an ownership society may not be for everyone. When society turns that way it becomes harder for people seeking security.
“Creativity and insecurity may go together, even if a lot of us would rather have a paycheck. I don’t know if any governments have given a lot of thought to this,” says Brod, citing the current debate over government involvement in health care as an example of how society attempts to balance risk and security. “At a time when the business world is getting more uncertain for employees, is this the time for the government to intervene?
“A big portion of the bottom line is taking on risk,” he says. “An ownership economy makes sense in relation to incentives. People are having to rely on themselves for many more things.”
So, almost six years after Florida’s visit, what can Greensboro do to continue to attract members of the creative class?
“It’s hard to generate advice to create policy to create a creative class,” says Brod. “For example, we know that tolerance attracts creative people, but what do you do with that? Tolerance doesn’t happen overnight. It takes decades.”
Beerbower says that the city has aiready taken positive steps to support the local creative environment.
“The city ‘s involvement in art installations has definitely been a change,” he says, referring to the numerous pieces of outdoor art in various places in downtown Greensboro. “The city has helped out with the infrastructure for the installations and established an arts commission to oversee public art. Businesses have also been approaching local artists instead of ordering from a catalog.”
In the case of Crouse, who could operate her business from literally anywhere, why does she stay in Greensboro?
“A year or two ago, I would have hightailed it out of here,” says Crouse. “but I’ve become dependent on the people who help me, and now I want to stay. I think Greensboro is at a turning point and more people are staying.”
Crouse says that multiple lifestyle options- another one of Florida’s prerequisites for attracting the creative class – are the key to keeping her in Greensboro.
“The Downtown Greenway makes me want to stay,” she says, a sentiment sure to make Sanders happy. “I see downtown moving in a direction I like.
“One of the things that makes Greensboro powerful is the kick-ass Farmer’s Market and the community gardens. Those kind of things build communities that make people want to stay. You feel you’re part of the city, not just in it,” she says.
Sanders believes that the city has made great strides in the direction of attracting creative talent and the jobs that come with them.
“We were so pleased with our community’s response to the Richard Florida visit,” she says. “It served as a catalyst event to motivate everyday citizens into action.”
Sanders says that the “creative class” approach to reviving the economy is not a panacea, however.
“The ideas that Florida outlined in his book are not ones to replace more traditional means of economic development,” says Sanders, “but rather ideas to supplement all of the ongoing efforts currently happening in our community.”
Boitnott says that community support is the ultimate arbitrator of whether Greensboro succeeds in its attempt to transform itself into a creative hotspot.
“It’s the community’s responsibility to embrace the quality they have,” he says. “The government could help, just like any other group, but it’s up to consumers to make it succeed.
“The creative ideas of the businesses need to be fueled by the community. The more support, the faster the idea flourishes and reaches its full potential.”
Boitnott says that Notion has reached out in the city to help nurture the creative environment that provides them with their employees.
“We’ve done composition contests and given software to the local high schools,” says Boitnott, who’s also the director of the Greensboro Guitar Summer Workshop, as well as a member of the Astanza Project, a local band. “For us, this is our community; these are our future employees.
“Almost everyone who works here is a musician. Musicians are programmers, musicians ate marketers. They already know what the software is supposed to do.”
Beerbower is afraid that Greensboro and Guilford County will react to the economic downturn by turning their backs on building the long-term foundations necessary for creative development.
“It would be a shame to cut the school budgets for art,” he says. “It teaches children problem-solving skills, and how to learn from their mistakes. More teachers are teaching towards the testing than teaching children how to be creative.
“We need to create a culture that values art.”
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How do you value art? Or creativity, for that matter? It’s been almost a year since I graduated from Randolph Community College with a degree in photography, and I’m still explaining to my mother – concerned about my lack of a traditional job – that in most of my potential career fields, self-employment is increasingly the norm.
We’re all the media, I tell her, and it’s up to us to create our own niche, rather than scan the help-wanted ads in the Sunday paper.
She seems unconvinced. Despite the lack of a college education, despite years out of the labor force while raising two children, despite one secretarial job after another, she was able to pay off her mortgage and retire.
How will I do the same without a secure career?
I’m not sure. In 2005, Florida published another book. The Flight of the Creative Class paints a somewhat sobering picture: creative and professional jobs moving overseas, just like the manufacturing jobs they were supposed to replace. In the internet age, creative work can be done anywhere.
“lf you’re in Shanghai, there’s no old lines to replace, no monopolies to fight,” says Robinson of the broadband technology that is paving the information superhighway. “Information can be uploaded faster elsewhere, and it gives scientists and inventors an advantage.”
According to Florida, the future belongs to those who can seize the opportunities that an insecure economy offers for those willing to make the leap.
Those like Robinson, who pauses and looks up from the computer on the floor.
“The world is going to be a pretty interesting place in a few years.”