Redevelopment of Gateway Cities as Creative Places is Potential Job Growth Driver

Will Creativity Gild the Road to Growth in Gateway City Economies?
CommonWealth Unbound

At a recent roundtable with leaders from across the state, we learned how Massachusetts discovered the value in “creative economy” economic development well before Richard Florida popularized the concept with his 2002 book Rise of the Creative Class.
Gateway Cities working to stage a comeback have benefited greatly from the state’s trailblazing work, and many are beginning to demonstrate how the creative economy offers a viable road to renewal. Unfortunately, the challenging economic times the state now faces jeopardizes creative economy investments critical to long-term growth and a robust recovery. The continued success of this strategy hinges on how we prioritize economic development spending given our increasingly limited resources.
Creative economy economic development is powerful because it can generate growth directly in our urban areas and indirectly throughout our regional economies. Cultural diversity and low-cost real estate give Gateway Cities advantages in the direct production of cultural goods and services, such as theaters and galleries. For these urban economies diversifying away from manufacturing, cultural industries provide an important new avenue for job growth.
In an innovation economy, growth is also generated by the mixing of people in urban spaces, where together they can come up with new concepts and ideas. Cultural venues often provide the backdrop against which people come together. This cultural vibrancy is also important in that it attracts people from diverse backgrounds to cities, and it makes them feel at ease sharing different ideas. Helping our Gateway Cities redevelop as creative places has the potential to foster new innovations that will drive job growth throughout our regions.
For more than a decade, the state’s creative economy efforts have recognized the connection between creative industries and creative places. Through the Massachusetts Cultural Council, we support nonprofit cultural organizations and artists, as well as efforts to revitalize our urban cores.
In many respects, the Commonwealth’s creative economy work is a model for economic development done right. From the beginning, our approach has been grounded in empirical analysis performed by the New England Council for the Arts, spending has been highly transparent, and our activities have been subject to independent evaluation by well-respected economic development consultants at Mt. Auburn Associates. Most importantly, the state’s efforts have been pursued in partnership with cities, and this has led to significant gains in local capacity.
The remarkable work catalyzed by creative economy economic development is already visible throughout many of our Gateway Cities. New Bedford offers one case study. Creative economy economic development was spurred by the city’s AHA night, which showcases New Bedford’s art, history, and architecture on  the second Thursday of each month. The event brings people from all over the region into the city, which has been a boon to local businesses. Equally important, an enormous amount of community capital has been built as residents work together to plan activities.
State resources were a critical factor in New Bedford’s success with AHA. The John and Abigail Adams Fund, which serves as a national model for the support of nonprofit organizations focused on job creation and community revitalization through cultural development, was one important catalyst. Newer state supports such as the Cultural Facilities Fund, which recently allowed the Zeiterion Theater to undertake a feasibility study to determine the potential for expansion, are also helping the city build on the success of AHA.
What’s perhaps most compelling is how the city has been able to step up as a more-than-able partner. City officials developed a comprehensive Creative Economy strategy and recently created a full-time staff position to help implement the plan. The state’s efforts have also leveraged significant local investment. The city has contributed matching funds, private foundations and corporations have come to the table with real resources, and, above all, residents have shown enormous energy and commitment.
With numerous new galleries, shops, and restaurants, the economic effects in downtown New Bedford are clear. But these efforts are also fueling social innovation that will contribute to long-term growth. Artists and entrepreneurs are engaging the city’s youth. Their work is also bridging cultural divides, fostering relationships, and building civic confidence that will be invaluable in helping move the city along a steady path toward a more prosperous future.
Unfortunately, just as these programs have begun to demonstrate their full potential, the present fiscal crisis may undermine their momentum by threatening the future of key programs like the Adams grants and the Cultural Facilities Fund. How we respond now offers an important test of our ability to make strategic decisions on critical economic development spending.
Last year, Gov. Patrick signed legislation establishing an advisory council charged with developing a creative economy strategy, along with the metrics to measure and market the state’s success. This council is well positioned to consider whether the state can and should provide direct subsidies for film, video games, and other creative industries. Based on past evaluations of these tax credits, a rigorous review would likely find that the Commonwealth would be much better served by keeping up with the small investments it’s been making to create vibrant and creative places for innovators to thrive, versus attempting to choose the industries that will generate job growth in the future with tax credits.
For Gateway Cities, the state’s creative economy economic development efforts are one of the few bright spots amid heavy job loss, soaring unemployment, and bare-bones local budgets. Before we make the decision to cut off these funds, we must carefully weigh our choices.
Ben Forman is a senior research associate at MassINC.
November 05, 2009
Source URL: http://www.cwunbound.org/2009/11/gateway-creative-economy-new-bedford.html

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