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Questioning The Idea of a Creative Class{photo source}

There’s nothing like times of economic hardship to stir up discussion about a city’s future. Should we revive industry? What kind of industry? Attract the creative class? What exactly does the creative class do? Or is tourism and retirement a safer bet? The asking of such questions always seems to lead to the development of various ideologies that, if adopted correctly, will supposedly bring communities within reach of the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Some experts espouse building quality of place through the experience of the built environment. Some say to lure young bohemians. Often, especially in recent years, the argument revolves around whether or not a city has “it.” Cities, so the logic goes, must be cool in order to prosper. Our current age is one of unequaled mobility in which the new industrial economy is virtual and spaceless and its captains free to choose and change their bases of operation at will. Your city better be cool, or the new prosperity-bringers will go elsewhere.

But is chasing that elusive and ephemeral “cool” a wise policy? For that matter, can “cool” be planned for at all? Bill Fulton wrote a nice piece for New Geography a short while back that encourages cities to focus less on image and more on productivity.

The question is not whether cities must be cool or uncool in order to prosper. Clearly, there are some cities in each camp that prosper, and some cities in each camp that do not. The question is deeper: In both cool and uncool cities, what is the underlying nature of the economy? Does the city simply import money from other places, or does it export goods and services to other places? Because it is this distinction – not cool or uncool – that serves as the dividing line between prosperity that is real and prosperity that is illusory.

Fulton examines retirement communities, which are essentially dependent on a single demographic’s notion of “cool”:

Not long ago, I was interviewing a retired politician in a fast-growing Southern metropolis. Even though he was a good ol’ boy who had never left home, he bore no resentment for the retired Yankees who flooded his town. In fact, he attributed the whole area’s prosperity to them. A retirement community, he said, “is like a high-wage factory. You build 1,000 houses, you have 1,000 households making $90,000 a year. A high-wage factory without the factory.”

Fulton is quick to note, however, that the factory metaphor only goes so far.

The most obvious similarity, as my politician friend pointed out, is that the residents live in town, get steady paychecks to spend locally, and become involved in local life. Like factory workers, retirees can support a whole service economy with their local spending.

But there’s more to a factory-town economy than simply Saturday grocery shopping by the workers. Factories are in the export business, while retirement communities are in the import business. An export economy spins off all kinds of economic benefits that you don’t get from an import economy. A big factory requires lots of suppliers, and tends to stimulate the creation of an economic cluster — a group of businesses that feed off each other and, in time, find new customers outside the region.

A retirement community creates a cluster of suppliers, too. But this cluster tends to be composed of local service-sector businesses that create low-wage jobs and aren’t interested in repackaging their services for export outside the region — retailers, contractors, landscapers and pool-maintenance companies.

He could be talking about Sarasota. For all our assets, and we have many, we are still primarily a tourism and retirement town. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as our village has become a town and now a small city, our needs have changed. Whether or not the city spends our tax money wisely is a legitimate conversation, but the fact is that well-run cities require a strong tax base. Or else a citizenry that takes on the responsibilities typically held by local government.

Above all, though, we need to become less economically dependent on tourism, a fickle industry that contributes most to low-wage jobs, and retirement, which has only been around in its current form for a handful of generations and is now under serious threat. But how? Should we become one of Richard Florida’s Creative Class meccas? Should we build a fancy convention center? Or should we take a different approach, one that plays to our abundant strengths?

It’s time to stop talking about whether towns should be cool or uncool. What really matters is what they are producing. If all they’re producing is some kind of experience that induces people to come to town and spend money, it doesn’t matter how cool the town is; it’s probably not sustainable economically. If, on the other hand, the city is creating and exporting something the world needs – whether that product is cool or uncool – it’s a good bet that both the city and its people will do pretty well for a long time.

Maybe these are the questions we Sarasotans need to continue to answer—what are we producing? What can we start producing? How can we add diversity (and more middle income jobs) to our economy? How can we balance an import economy with local exports?

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The City of Sarasota has a major election coming up, as three seats on the City Commission are up for grabs. Have you registered to vote? Do you know which district you live in? Have you met the candidates? Local elections are extremely important, as local decisions have the greatest impact on your day to day life. The elections will take place March 8th, with February 7th being the last day to register.

“The City encourages you to participate in all elections. Voting is a fundamental right of our democracy. When you vote, you could be selecting Commissioners, voting on Referendums or Amendments to the City Charter. The Commission approves Ordinances and Resolutions; voter turnout determines what Referendums and Amendments pass. All of this with your participation will define how the City of Sarasota functions and how we live together.

Municipal government is involved in many aspects of our daily lives – from fixing roads, providing water and electricity, collecting garbage, supporting the arts, providing and maintaining sports venues and protecting our City’s citizens. Make an informed choice and browse the City’s website to learn about the issues facing the City of Sarasota and the City Commission’s many areas of responsibilities.” (from the City of Sarasota website)

Register to vote and find other important information at srqelections.com

 

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The City of Sarasota will participate in the international energy conservation effort known as Earth Hour by darkening City Hall, 1565 First Street, and the old Federal Building, 111 S. Orange Ave., Sat., March 27, 2010 from 8:30 pm to 9:30 pm. Decorative lights on the Ringling Bridge and Season of Sculpture along the bayfront also will be extinguished during Earth Hour. Residents are encouraged to participate as well.

The City Commission approved a resolution on March 15, 2010 supporting Earth Hour and encouraging residents and business owners to turn off non-essential lights during the designated one hour. With environmental sustainability as one of its top five priorities, the Commission is committed to combating climate change by reducing the City’s carbon footprint.

Launched in 2007 by the World Wildlife Fund, Earth Hour is a global event which raises awareness about climate change issues. Organizers encourage the public to take actions to increase energy efficiency and decrease carbon emissions. One simple dramatic step is to turn off your lights.

It is estimated 80 million Americans in 318 cities participated in Earth Hour last year. Included in the list of landmarks which were darkened: the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Space Needle and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Join the City of Sarasota and people around the globe as we turn out the lights for Earth Hour. For more information about the City of Sarasota’s involvement contact Environmental Specialist Alison Albee: 941-365-2200 ext. 6317. See the original release here.

To learn more about Earth Hour visit www.earthhour.org

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