The Creative Revolution

Sit down, civic leaders. Class is in session.

Here is a list of developments and institutions finished or created in the last decade for which most of you would gladly claim responsibility: Raymond James Stadium, Centro Ybor, the Ice Palace, The Florida Aquarium, Channelside, Tropicana Field, the Devil Rays, BayWalk, International Plaza and the housing booms of New Tampa and Pasco County.

But none of these will help position the Tampa Bay area as one this country's premier 21st-century regions. We need a thriving gay community, a kick-ass local music scene, human rights ordinances, tax breaks for creative types, and enough artists and writers to send Bible-beating conservatives packing for the Georgia border.

Welcome, class, to Richard Florida 101.

Since its printing in May, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life has turned Richard Florida into something of a liberal prophet and a media darling — or punching bag — depending on whom you read. A professor of regional economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Florida espouses theories that run in opposition to nearly 50 years of ideology and practice.

Forget privately owned sports teams playing in publicly funded stadiums, he said. The city of tomorrow must have the "creative class" — artists, writers, lawyers, engineers, computer programmers and other brainpower workers — walking its street. The "it" industries of information technology and biosciences and whatever else the media dub the Next Big Thing are not attracted to Super Bowl-winning teams and their beer-guzzling fans. If cities want the Ciscos and Microsofts of tomorrow, Florida believes, they will need a tolerant, well-educated community, large research universities and one hell of an affluent gay community.

The New York Times fawned over Florida's theories, which would create a "Bridget Jones Economy," as The Economist put it, in a rare reference to pop culture. Don Hazen, executive editor of alternative wire service AlterNet, called Florida's work the new "it" book.

Even locally, Florida has already garnered press — albeit from snippy St. Petersburg Times south Tampa columnist Sandra Thompson, who discussed the book in her trademark pedestrian prose that would make readers wonder if she understood Florida's ideas or just had a deadline looming and an original press release on her desk. "Yes, bohos and gays mean money! Get the word out," Thompson wrote in a humorous attempt at wit.

The media attention, good and bad, has placed Florida among the ranks of our-New-Economy-changes-everything theorists such as Joel Kotkin (The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape) and former Al Gore speechwriter Daniel Pink (Free Agent Nation).

All the while, Florida's star has been rising on a speaking circuit that pays him $10,000 a stop. Orlando brought him down on June 26 to give a pep talk to city leaders interested in moving from a tourism-based service economy with minimum-wage workers to a dynamic marketplace with an emphasis on technology and salaried innovators.

Florida has his critics. Mark Zandi of economy.com believes he praises gays and artists for regional economic activity generated by public and private investments in universities. But his theories are at least ambitious, especially for our mid-size, mildly conservative region.

How can we attract the so-called creative class? Here are five lessons:

Lesson 1: The Chicken Comes Before the Egg

Civic leaders across the Bay area have followed a regional economic development plan that, while unsuccessful, is duplicated by cities from Portland, Me., to Portland, Ore.: stadium, convention center, restaurants, chains.

Daily newspapers, eager to increase circulation with expanded sports coverage, and money-hungry team owners campaign for — and usually win — new sports stadiums. Every 10 years, cities build a new convention center not because the old one is run-down or too small, but because the city down the road just built one. Then, as local entrepreneurs strive to open shops, bars and restaurants, cities cut huge checks in the form of a tax breaks to Wal-Mart and Chili's to entice them into the city limits.

"Hard Rock Cafes and Planet Hollywoods — you're just like everyone else," Florida said of middle-market cities during an interview in Orlando with Weekly Planet.

According to Florida, America's cities are missing the point: The companies they ultimately want to attract — the Hewlett-Packards, the Intels, the Citibanks — could give a damn about Wal-Marts and tax breaks. They need talent, human capital, and they'll move to any city with brainpower to spare. In essence, mid-size cities lay eggs without chickens to incubate them.

It's no different in the Tampa Bay area. According to Joe Wieand, director of the Center for Economic Development Research at the University of South Florida, our growth has nothing to do with The Florida Aquarium or new entertainment complexes such as BayWalk.

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