Joe Cortright: "The paint is still wet..."

He comes from Portland — with insights about Tampa Bay.

Who? Joe Cortight is a nationally known economist whose Portland, Ore., firm, Impresa, studies cities and regions with an eye toward helping them identify their strengths and frame their economic — and societal — decisions.

Sphere of influence: All of Tampa Bay, if not the entire nation. He's studied communities from Florida to Michigan, from the northwest to Pittsburgh.

How he makes a difference: Cortright has looked at Tampa Bay twice: His first work here, for the nonprofit advocacy group Creative Tampa Bay, produced a study called "Young and Restless" that detailed how our area has far fewer young (25-34), creative and professional people than almost every other top 50 U.S. city. His second looked at what makes Tampa Bay distinctive, with its key conclusion that within 15 years our region will be the No. 1 destination for retiring Baby Boomers. Next week (Oct. 23), he comes here a third time, to talk about his new study, "The Green Dividend."

CL: What exactly is the green dividend?

Cortright: The green dividend is the economic benefit that communities can get from greener behavior, more environmentally friendly behavior. And the gist of the analysis is that green policies get viewed as noble self-sacrifice — that we're going to give up something because we care about baby seals or something, but it's coming at the cost of the function of our free-market economy and our prosperity. When you look carefully ... [green policies] actually produce significant economic benefits for local economies.

How do you think your first two studies were received?

As an observer from afar, and comparing Tampa Bay with other regions that we've worked with in the country, we've seen some great examples of initiatives in the community: Creative Tampa Bay and a number of other local professions. We did our version of the "Young and Restless" study in May 2004. A year and a half ago we released the "Things Look Different Here" study and tried to underscore distinctiveness.

The distinctiveness measure is really, I think, more of a challenge to communities, and more of a longer-term challenge. Because with "Young and Restless," we're saying here's this group and here's how you can get them with some specific actions you can take without a lot of widespread community consensus. With the distinctiveness study, it's much more about getting agreement about what the community's long-term objectives are. I'm seeing some progress on that. There's a real opportunity for how well-positioned Tampa Bay is with Baby Boom retirees. It's really on the cusp.

Given we have relatively few young creatives and the possibility of many Baby Boomers coming, does that translate to the graying of Tampa Bay?

I think people have a concern about that. But I think if you look carefully at the Baby Boom generation, there are some important characteristics that are very different [from previous generations]. Boomers have a much different attitude about continuing to work after retirement, so they're much more likely to be engaged [in other activities]. They're healthier, they're wealthier than other generations were. The Boomers reinvented every other stage of the life cycle, so it's likely that they will do so in retirement as much as they did beforehand.

There's a risk of the "God's Waiting Room," but there's an opportunity. Tampa Bay is poised to realize this before other communities. You can engage older people in a different way in the community.

The other important thing is that Tampa Bay is a relatively new community. The fraction of the housing stock that was there 20 years ago is the lowest in the United States. The fraction of the people who were there 20 years ago is among the lowest in the United States. That gives you more of an ability to redefine, or define, what it is, who you are, than maybe other places that have much more longevity. The paint is still wet in some respects, in [contrast to] ways that other communities are ossified and very, very difficult to change. Change has been a fact of life in the Tampa Bay area.

Does your work have an overarching theme?

If I were to pick just one theme, it is about understanding local distinctiveness. There is a real tendency in economics and economic development strategy to try to copy what everybody else is doing because you think that is successful. So 20 years ago everybody wanted to be the next Silicon Valley; 10 years ago everybody wanted to be the next center of the dot-com world. Now a lot of places, and this is true in Florida especially, want to be the next biotech center.

Not everybody is going to succeed in every one of those. You really have to understand what's different and distinctive about your community, because that gives you an edge that other places won't have and increases your chances of success. So it is really important that communities think about what's special in their DNA that will give them opportunities that other communities don't have.

How should we use "Things Are Different Here," given that it has lots of different and at times seemingly contradictory findings?

What we are trying to do with a lot of that information is help provoke and contribute to a discussion about community identity and values. That's where the media play a really important role in constructing the narrative about a community. That's maybe one of the biggest challenges: Does everybody agree with what the community is and what the values are?

It's hard now, because the nature of leadership is changing. You used to be able to point to a few civic fixers [the head of the utilities, the local bank, a handful of developers] ... who made the decisions. Now, community groups are more active, more neighborhood participation, a flattening of democracy and society. It's a lot more open to who's going to have control of that narrative — particularly in places like the Tampa Bay region, where that narrative isn't settled, it's evolving. Our hope is to move past the glib slogan descriptions that we often have of our communities to this more rooted dialogue about the values and the narrative that surround place.

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