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Dr. Florida's prescription: creating a vision for cities

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2003


What does the Tampa Bay region want to be when it grows up?

An intolerant, bland, slow-growth backwater that outsiders can't -- or don't want to -- find on a map of Florida? Or a mecca of "cool" whose depth of culture and tolerance draws a diversity of highly talented people and quality industry, which in turn attracts even more creative folks and businesses that want to hire them?

The answer seems obvious. How to get there is not. If only someone with fresh vision and a possible road map could help.

Well, Tampa Bay, Dr. Florida will see you now. Literally.

Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon University regional economic development professor and the author of the bestseller The Rise of the Creative Class, charmed an audience of nearly 500 in downtown Tampa for two hours Friday with a witty and probing view of what this metro area could become. A place with buzz, where artists and musicians, gays and bohemians, high-tech entrepreneurs and educators congregate in such density that they feed off the energy, ideas and jobs of one another.

Think San Francisco or Austin or Boston on Florida's gulf coast. But with a uniquely Tampa Bay flavor.

Is that really possible? Is that what this area wants?

One thing is sure. For the 24-plus hours Dr. Florida was in town, he made a distinct impression. In between visits Thursday with the area media, he had productive chats with two mayors who were already familiar with his work. In St. Petersburg, Dr. Florida and Mayor Rick Baker discussed how little things -- creating dog parks and skate parks, among other things -- helped raise the quality of life. With Tampa's brand new mayor, Pam Iorio, Dr. Florida talked about the value of supporting the arts.

In between, Dr. Florida, 45, schmoozed at a private gathering Thursday evening at the headquarters of the Tampa staffing company Kforce Inc. And over a dinner at Bern's, a waiter told Dr. Florida that he, too, had read his book and had been motivated to design a line of handbags.

Dr. Florida's remarks, delivered nonstop without text and with the zeal of a revival meeting, succeeded in pumping up an audience that had paid $30 apiece to attend. Afterwards, in the Ferguson Hall lobby of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, this was the consensus: What can we do to make at least some of this actually happen here?

Thankfully, some of Dr. Florida's enthusiasm will stay in, uh, Florida. Deanne Roberts, the gung-ho head of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and Tampa Bay Partnership staffer Karen Raihill -- two women who played key roles in bringing Dr. Florida here to speak -- will attend a meeting May 1-2 in Memphis, Tenn., with the professor. Leaders from about 40 communities who have heard Dr. Florida speak will explore more concrete ways to encourage a creative climate in their cities.

"This is not designed to create 'template' cities" that just follow some cookie-cutter instructions from Dr. Florida, Roberts says. Each city is different, and any change will occur slowly in distinctive ways. One idea that caught her eye: an "incubator" that would help support and subsidize area artists.

In his book, Dr. Florida ranks hundreds of metro areas in the country on a creativity index. The index is based on multiple factors: an area's percentage of creative workers (from artists to writers to software engineers to entrepreneurs to lawyers) in the labor force; the size of its high-tech sector; the degree of innovation based on the number of patents per capita; how much of the population is college educated; how concentrated is the population of gay couples and bohemians or "artistically creative people."

Among larger metro areas, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area doesn't make the professor's top 10 list of creative class cities, where San Francisco, Austin and San Diego rank Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

No, the Tampa Bay area lands at No. 26. Just below Kansas City. Just above Salt Lake City. Among larger Florida metro areas, Tampa Bay closely trails No. 23 West Palm Beach, but is ahead of No. 29 Miami, No. 32 Orlando and No. 37 Jacksonville.

In a national ranking of mid-size metro areas, Sarasota comes in at No. 30, well below top-rated Albany, N.Y. But among smaller (250,000 to 500,000 people) metro areas, several Florida cities stand tall. Nationwide, Melbourne ranks No. 1, Pensacola is No. 9 and Tallahassee is No. 10.

Dr. Florida, who grew up in an Italian family in what he calls a "Sopranolike" neighborhood in Newark, N.J., is paid about $10,000 to speak to communities such as ours. He keeps a vigorous travel schedule that put him Sarasota this past weekend and en route to Toronto today. He speaks Wednesday at Harvard University, where he was a visiting professor.

Some reviews of The Rise of the Creative Class have fixated on its high-tech or gay index components (cities popular with gays also tend to be high-tech centers) and tweaked the author for espousing an elitist culture of yuppies. That, Dr. Florida says, is a misinterpretation.

Cities that can attract a talented and tolerant class of creative workers will find there will be more and better jobs for all, he argues.

That's a key point. Several years ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a man in northern California who said he was considering a job offer with Tech Data Corp. in Clearwater. "What's the Tampa Bay tech market like?" he asked me. While he was tempted to take Tech Data's job, he said he was worried. If things did not work out, were there enough tech jobs in the Tampa Bay area to offer some choices at similar pay?

That question gets asked over and over. As it should.

So now that Tampa Bay's heard of a potential future from Dr. Florida, what's the prescription?

One Friday attendee, local tech social networker Fritz Eichelberger, said he couldn't agree more with the speaker's pitch for a tolerant local culture that would help attract a range of creative types. But he added it was hard to visualize how this would happen in the Tampa Bay area any time soon when many of his "creative class" friends -- mostly software experts -- can't find jobs.

Others applauded Dr. Florida's ideas but said the political climate, especially in Florida where budget cuts were focused on arts and education, would discourage creative people from migrating to the area.

Roberts, this year's elected head of the Tampa chamber, is not deterred. She was struck in reading The Rise of the Creative Class by a reference to how "entry barriers" can be so high in a community that creative people are discouraged and leave. That hit home.

"Our entry barriers here are a bit tough," Roberts says. Why? Because Tampa Bay is very traditional in some ways. Even the economic development groups tend to fend off newcomers until they can "prove" they are worthy of participation. But by then the area may have lost good people.

Roberts plans leadership programs to attract new arrivals, especially minorities and women who have lacked reasonable access to the sources of business power in Tampa.

"Once the talent is here, you want them to quickly assimilate and be happy," Roberts says.

Amid Dr. Florida's pep talk, he offered this warning: The country's growing fixation on closing its borders and homeland security will have unintended and unpleasant consequences. A lot of the creative class that will generate the better jobs and quality of life in U.S. communities are immigrants who now find the climate in the United States noticeably chilly.

"We are making the U.S. less attractive to people around the globe," he says. At the same time, other parts of the world -- he cited Toronto, Vancouver and Wellington, New Zealand -- are gaining ground and recognition as tolerant places for talented people.

If that trend continues, Dr. Florida may have to write a new book titled The Export of the Creative Class.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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