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Talent Magnet

Why should Memphis be courting more musicians, gays, and artists? The answer may surprise you.



Trapped between a large Working Class and a traditional corporate leadership that retains a strong commitment to organization-man values, [the city] has struggled to generate an environment and culture that appeal to the Creative Class. The members of that class, sandwiched between these two value systems, find it difficult to validate their identities in the city and so frequently move away."

So writes Richard Florida, H. John Heinz III Professor of Regional Economic Development at Carnegie-

Mellon University, in his celebrated and controversial book The Rise Of the Creative Class (Basic Books). Florida is writing here about his hometown of Pittsburgh, but substitute Florida's new term "the creative class" with the more familiar "knowledge workers" or just "well-educated young people" and many Memphians might recognize their own city in those words.

The difficulty Memphis has in keeping its most talented young people and in attracting desirable young workers to the city is not a new development, but it's one that may be getting a new focus, thanks in part to Florida's findings and to the Memphis Talent Magnet Project, a recently released report (partly inspired by Florida's work) commissioned by the city and county governments and the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce.

Florida's book, along with a widely read excerpt published in The Washington Monthly in May with the provocative subtitle "Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race," has been receiving the kind of mainstream attention that you wouldn't normally associate with a work on regional-growth theory. It chronicles the rise of what Florida terms a new social class and insists that the cities best able to attract and retain this class are thriving in the new economy. Those that can't are falling behind.

In The Rise Of the Creative Class, Florida devises a Creativity Index to rank metro areas by their standing in the "creative economy," a statistical measure he contends is a barometer of a region's long-term economic potential. Of the country's 49 largest metro areas, Florida ranks San Francisco, Austin, and San Diego as the top three "creative" cities. Memphis ranks dead last.

Florida's Theory

Florida argues that the postwar organizational era, in which cities sought to grow by courting businesses (through things like tax incentives and cheap labor), has been replaced by a new economic paradigm -- the creative economy -- in which regions grow through attracting and retaining talent who, in turn, attract companies (or, better yet, start them). For a city to survive in this new economy, Florida contends, it must make itself attractive to these workers, because, if it doesn't, the workers will leave and companies will follow them. Cities must actively seek to attract these workers because they are more likely to move and move long distances than are other workers.

As Florida defines it, the class makes up 30 percent of the nation's work force, or 38 million people. The "creative core" of the group includes scientists, researchers, and engineers, architects and designers, educators, artists, musicians, entertainers, and opinion-makers. The group is bolstered by what Florida calls "creative professionals," people who use problem-solving and critical thinking as part of their jobs, including those in the fields of business and finance, law, health care, and technology.

But this "class" is also unified by what Florida calls a shared ethos, a common set of values and concerns that drives location decisions and lifestyle preferences. This ethos values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit. It prizes autonomy and flexibility in the workplace and authenticity and activity in lifestyle and living environments.

The Local Response

When The Rise Of the Creative Class hit bookstores, Florida's theories and findings (and Memphis' place in them) came as no surprise to local civic leaders. Florida had already given two presentations locally and had lent his research to the Memphis Talent Magnet Project -- a six-month project on how to attract young knowledge workers that was completed essentially alongside Florida's book.

The project grew out of discussions between Shelby County senior policy adviser Tom Jones and Carol Coletta, the host of the locally produced urban-issues radio show Smart City. (Coletta interviewed Florida on the first installment of her program in early 2001.) And the project was in part a response to complaints from local corporate recruiters about the difficulty of luring top young talent to the city.

"Work force development and the challenge of retaining the best and brightest young people that graduate from our schools, or that leave Memphis for school and don't come back, has been a persistent theme that comes up over and over when we talk with local companies and with the chamber about work force issues," says Jones, who, along with Coletta and others, helped to write and edit the Talent Magnet report, "so [the project] seemed to be especially timely and especially on point."

The report draws strongly from Florida's work, taking one of his shorthand descriptions for how to build a "creative community" -- the three "T"s of economic development: technology, talent, and tolerance -- as a focal point. And the report's lengthy laundry list of recommendations reads like a localized version of Florida's prescription for a creative community. According to representatives from the city, county, and chamber, the reaction to the report has been almost uniformly positive among civic leaders.

"You've got to offer a positive, fulfilling quality of life to draw workers, and I think that's always been the case," says Jones. "But the key to what Richard is saying is that, with the workers of the knowledge economy, that is the overriding issue. And I think that's widely accepted."

Marc Jordan, president of the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, is more reserved in his embrace of Florida's findings but acknowledges the importance of the Talent Magnet report's mission. "We accept some of what Florida is talking about," Jordan says. "His research seems focused more toward young people, and we'd be just as happy to attract older married couples with children. But those people are harder to attract because they're not as mobile."

According to Coletta, reception of the report has fallen into three primary camps: "Young people who see it as common sense and are glad to finally see civic leaders talking about it; people who have previously felt outside the establishment and see space being carved out for them too"; and the welcoming acceptance from that very establishment.

"When we submitted the report to the chamber," Coletta says, "we weren't sure how they'd take it, but a common reaction was 'My kids say exactly what's in this report' and 'I want my kids to come back to Memphis.' For people who haven't been able to put the puzzle together, this provides the blueprint."

Where the producers of the Talent Magnet report have encountered resistance is from people upset at Memphis' place in Florida's rankings, though Jones and Jordan don't take much issue with Florida's research. But even Florida admits that the rankings (many of which are based on data that span the last decade and may not accurately reflect the city's seemingly rapid recent transformation) probably don't do the city justice.

"Even though Memphis ranked last, there is an energy and a sense of the possibility of change that I haven't seen in a lot of cities ranked higher," Florida admits. "I think the city has tremendous potential, more potential to transform itself than perhaps any city in the country, and that's not B.S. The change process that the people in Memphis tell me about, I feel it too. You can see that people want to do it, and you can see that large parts of the civic leadership are intent on positioning Memphis for success. They're not sitting on the community like the leadership in so many other cities."

One thing that all the players involved in the Talent Magnet report seem to agree on is that it signals the beginning of a discussion, not a closing argument. It's a discussion about what kind of city the citizens of Memphis want and a discussion that, among several other areas, is likely to center on the following fault lines:

People Climate Vs. Business Climate

Perhaps the core principle in Florida's recipe for regional growth is that, for all the talk traditionally heard from civic leaders about fostering a good "business climate," developing a top-notch "people climate" is even more important.

A good people climate is one that offers a "thick" labor market (one conducive to the "horizontal movement" of people from company to company), desirable lifestyle amenities, and chances for stimulating social interaction. (Florida writes about the importance of "third places" -- social settings outside the home and office, such as coffee shops and cafés -- to a demographic more likely to be single.)

Florida traces the recent back-to-the-city movement as a result of the location decisions of the creative class, which is rejecting the previously popular Silicon Valley suburban office-park model, which causes sprawl, pollution, and traffic jams, in favor of a return to downtown residential concentrations and mixed-use urban areas. This can be seen locally in the tremendous growth of downtown Memphis' residential population over the last decade.

A dozen "creative class" Memphians who have come here from other regions (or, in some cases, come back) were interviewed for this article, and all expressed an ethos and set of lifestyle preferences in line with what Florida describes. Michael Graber, a 32-year-old writer and musician who returned to Memphis from North Carolina, echoes the Florida model for a good people climate: "cleaning up and preserving the public parks, making bike and walking trails on major streets like Union, Poplar, and Central, investing in Memphis' musical heritage, and focusing on what's uniquely Memphis rather than polluting the landscape with national entities like sports teams, chain stores, and theme parks."

On an April installment of Smart City, Florida spoke forcefully of focusing on a people climate rather than a business one, saying that, if he were the mayor of a struggling city, he would not directly subsidize any businesses but would instead focus on small, direct quality-of-place investments, putting public money into neighborhood-level projects.

"Places have to make the right financial investment," Florida said later in a phone interview. "A lot of things Memphis has done lately have been sports-oriented, which is fine, but those aren't the kinds of things that are going to help turn you around in the long run. When you think about your resource pool, you need to think about the best way to spend it in order to tap your community's creativity. I think an adjustment in civic attitudes can empower a lot of people who want to create change. But it's another thing to spend on things that matter."

The local Talent Magnet report, while taking a more moderate view, corresponds with many of Florida's ideas about promoting a people climate. Civic leaders in Memphis aren't about to abandon the notion of courting companies, but they acknowledge that the report alters the discussion.

"We believe that you have to do both. You have to actively lobby businesses to come to your community and you have to attract talented people," says Jordan. "In the past, we've probably focused more on the business climate, and this report is part of finding a good balance among those things."

Authenticity Vs. Generica

and the Importance Of Street Culture

According to Florida, the creative class prefers authentic places and culture to franchised businesses and look-alike suburban development. They prize historic buildings, established neighborhoods, unique music scenes, and specific, localized cultural attributes. According to virtually everyone interviewed for this article, Memphis' authenticity, both in terms of culture and physical environment, is one of its greatest assets, but it's an asset that still must be cultivated and preserved.

In The Rise Of the Creative Class, Florida looks askance at some of the typical downtown amenities that cities invest in: urban malls, theme-park tourist districts, and professional-sports complexes. And high-profile amenities such as Beale Street, the Peabody Place Retail and Entertainment Center, and the forthcoming Grizzlies stadium drew an ambivalent response from our local creative-class respondents. Few could muster much goodwill for the Grizzlies or Beale, and most echoed the sentiments of Tim Michael, a 27-year-old architect who recently returned to Memphis from Dallas, regarding Peabody Place: "Conceptually, I think the Peabody Place mall is a great addition to downtown, but I think it was very poorly executed and attempts to be historical but has few of the qualities that we all appreciate about authentic old buildings and dense urban centers."

But Coletta makes a strong case for the importance of these developments, especially in relation to where downtown Memphis was a decade ago. "I think it's great that these national retailers are coming back to downtown," she says. "Locally owned retailers are disappearing all over the country, and, given that, I think we have an unbelievable mix of locally owned retail, restaurant, entertainment, and housing in downtown."

And part of that mix is ongoing development that perfectly matches Florida's description of the kinds of authentic environments that the creative class craves. "What you're doing in South Main is something you see in larger, more vibrant cities but that just doesn't exist in cities the size of Memphis," Florida says. "To have that kind of [forward-looking development] in your community is a huge asset. I think Beale is an important part of telling the world about Memphis. But what I see that stands out is that South Main area. Those are the kinds of areas that creative-class people are going to get excited about."

And, indeed, it's neighborhoods like South Main and Cooper-Young that our local respondents pointed to, and that the Talent Magnet report mentions, as the kind of mixed-use residential development that should be encouraged.

Nancy Coffee, a 31-year-old arts-organization executive, transplant, and South Main resident, sums up the desired vibe by describing the "unpretentious, gritty authenticity" of her neighborhood, which affords "immediate access to street life with a mix of commercial and residential vibrancy."

And, per Florida's description, our locals seem to prefer active, social street-level culture to more organized lifestyle amenities. Few mention traditional institutions like opera or ballet or professional sports but instead focus on restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and live-music venues, the "third places" Florida writes about.

This focus on participatory culture is reflected heavily in the Talent Magnet report. "In the past," says Jones, "we've had a broad-based quality-of-life policy [working with traditional arts organizations and cultural institutions]. What this report told us was that, while those are wonderful civic investments, the target market that we're talking about -- these young people who are essentially the fuel of the new economy -- wants something more specific, more active."

Diversity, Or: Conservatism As Economic Problem

Diversity is a common buzzword, but when Florida uses it in The Rise Of the Creative Class, he's using an expanded definition. Florida focuses on the presence of gays, immigrants, and so-called bohemians (those involved in the creative arts) in a community because of the strong statistical correlation he finds between those populations and a city's ranking on various measures of high-tech industry. Florida's argument isn't that gays, immigrants, and bohemians spur high-tech growth but that the visible presence of these communities reflects a cultural tolerance that the creative class at-large seeks.

But by making cultural openness an economic-development issue, Florida provides what may be his most provocative and divisive idea, even if it's one he never directly spells out in The Rise Of the Creative Class: the notion that religious fundamentalism and social conservatism are not only political and moral issues but possible economic drawbacks.

It's an idea that the Talent Magnet report doesn't address (outside of a sole mention of sexual orientation) and that civic leaders shy away from but one that Florida acknowledges when the question is broached: "The places where [social conservatism and religious fundamentalism] take root, it'll drive the creative people away," Florida says, "because they want openness, diversity, an environment that validates them and is open to risk-taking. That's a form of institutional sclerosis. The other variant is this organization-man culture, which is such a problem here in Pittsburgh -- this notion that anyone who isn't wearing a suit and tie and isn't a white male and doesn't play by the corporate rules has no value."

In this context, the occasional culture-war skirmishes that pop up on the Memphis landscape, such as the brouhaha over the Karl Marx quote in the public art at the Central Library or hand-wringing in Germantown over a production of The Vagina Monologues, become more than just colorful nuisances: They become roadblocks to economic development. In fact, in the original version of The Rise Of the Creative Class, the excerpted paragraph about Pittsburgh that begins this article continued, "The process in turn stamped out the creative ethos, causing talented and creative people to seek out more congenial places. Their departure removed much of the impetus for change. Case in point, the clash in attitudes over the new Memphis Central Library." Florida then included a discussion of the issue, removing the passage from his final draft once it became clear that the controversy had blown over rather quickly.

But Florida cautions about the damage such episodes can cause. "Your city should invest its scarce dollars in what's important and authentic about Memphis," Florida says. "That's what's going to create its image as a place that's no longer a stodgy, parochial kind of community. And that seems to be happening. But the thing you've got to make sure about is crazy stuff like that thing with the library. That's the kind of thing that can set a city back five years. That's the kind of message that says to creative-class people, Don't come."

It's the Schools, Stupid

Florida calls major research universities a basic infrastructure component of the creative economy because of their role in attracting and retaining talent and in establishing a broader quality of place. Under Florida's formula, research universities, more than private corporations, serve as the factories, raw materials, and headquarters of the creative economy.

The Talent Magnet report contends that most of its recommendations don't require a huge financial investment. But one key area of the city's economic future that will is the health of our colleges and universities, a problem that Jones identifies as central to the goals of the Talent Magnet report. "That's probably our biggest issue," Jones says. "That's what Austin's done in using the university to really capture and harness so much of their talent. Unfortunately, we seem to have gone in the other direction with state funding. The state isn't even in a mode now of trying to figure out how to create nationally competitive universities. They've got us in a situation where our universities are just trying to survive. And that puts us at a distinct disadvantage [when it comes to attracting and retaining people]."

But education doesn't just mean colleges and universities. Florida contends that elementary and secondary education didn't factor much in the location decisions of the young workers he studied, presumably a result of a demographic that puts off marriage and child-rearing until later in life, if they get around to it at all. But the importance of public education was the sole issue on which local creative-class subjects differed strongly from Florida's national subjects. In fact, almost every person interviewed cited Memphis' public school system as one of the primary obstacles to the city becoming a more livable community, even though most of those interviewed do not have children. "Education is an issue that affects the entire community," says Chris Matz, a 31-year-old librarian originally from Portland.

"I think the state of the school system keeps a lot of young parents away," Jeff Joiner, a 34-year-old art director who moved to Memphis from Dallas, contends. "I've gotta live with these people," says Adam Remsen, a 30-year-old writer and editor who has lived in several metro areas, summing up why the issue is crucial even for people without kids of their own.

New Issues, New Players, New Images

Perhaps the most tangible outgrowth of Florida's theory is, as Coletta says, "the fact that it puts new issues on the economic-development agenda." In Florida's way of thinking, amenities such as greenspaces, outdoor recreation, a vital arts scene, and vibrant street culture aren't merely frills but are as vital to a community's economic health as a more traditional business infrastructure. And, by moving these heretofore "soft" issues onto the economic-development agenda, it may cause some civic leaders to take them more seriously. This way of thinking could play a part in many civic decisions, including current debate over the future of Shelby Farms.

This elevation of lifestyle amenities as central to economic development is also a key part of the Talent Magnet report. "I think you'll see a shift in thinking among public agencies on outdoor amenities like greenbelts and bike trails," says Jones. "The Riverfront Development Corporation has already moved in that area with the canoeing and kayaking on Mud Island." Jordan also sees increased emphasis on areas like the arts and outdoor recreation as a growing part of the city's economic agenda.

But along with new issues come new people, and Florida's recipe for building a creative community calls for allowing new groups a seat at the table -- ethnic minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians, young people, and other outsiders to the traditional business-culture model.

The final chapter of Florida's book is called "The Creative Class Grows Up," which is a plea for his subjects of study to get more involved in civic and community affairs. MPACT, a fledgling organization made up mostly of young business people, could be a local vehicle for this. According to MPACT president Darrell Cobbins, the group seeks to be a key force in helping the city attract and retain young talent and spur Memphians in their 20s and 30s to be more active in civic affairs. "The overarching premise is that if you can create a connection among people who are new to Memphis and help them develop some passion about community issues, then they'll be less likely to leave," Cobbins says.

In addition to putting new issues on the table and giving new people a seat at it, the Talent Magnet report wants to transform the way the city promotes itself. Jones speaks of the image of "Memphis as mausoleum" to describe the city's penchant for identifying itself with dead people (the Kings, etc.) and tired concepts (cotton and slow-moving riverboats) and stresses that the city needs to get "more contemporary, more current" with the images it puts out in order to change the perception of Memphis as a slow, provincial, unexciting city researchers found common among recruitees.

"If I'm 25 years old and I ask someone what it is about Memphis that makes it so neat, the discussion might center on things that happened 40 or 50 years ago," Jones says, "a lot of people who are deceased and a lot of historic events that these kids' parents may barely remember. Somehow, we have to take [images such as] Elvis and Sun and bring them forward and connect them to today."

Of course, an image overhaul can only go so far. As for the tangible changes that the Talent Magnet report and the local acceptance of Florida's findings will inspire, Jones thinks it will be subtle at first but result in some fundamental shifts.

"The challenge is trying to chart with these very bright young people in a competitive situation, where we're pitted against a Boston or Austin or San Francisco and having not just an exciting image but an image backed up with reality," Jones says. "This isn't a marketing plan or an image issue. This is a reality issue, because it must be backed up by what the city really feels like. And the challenge comes in lining up our resources to accomplish that."

For more on Richard Florida's "creative class" theory and a thorough look at the rankings, go to For a copy of the Memphis Talent Magnet Project report and Smart City archives, go to The Talent Magnet report can also be found at You can e-mail Chris Herrington at

Smart City

Carol Coletta is changing Memphis through radio.

by Mary Cashiola

WKNO's Smart City is billed as an in-depth look at urban life. But for host and native Memphian Carol Coletta, the radio program is her own little weekly seminar. She'll focus on a topic of urban interest and ask what can be done to improve it, and she says if she gets one idea out of the show, it's worth it.

But she's hardly the only one benefiting from the program. In the very first Smart City, Coletta interviewed Richard Florida, author of The Rise Of the Creative Class, about exactly what constitutes a "smart" city. Out of that sprang the Memphis Talent Magnet Project.

"I began doing commentaries that would be slipped into Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and I had this idea for a radio program," says Coletta of the show's beginnings. "We'd team up someone local with someone on a national level to speak on a topic of local interest."

That first show paired Florida with Harold Ford Jr. Subsequent pairings included Memphis City Schools superintendent Johnnie Watson with KIPP Academy co-founder Michael Feinberg on education strategies and Shelby County mayor Jim Rout with Austin, Texas, mayor Kirk Watson.

Eventually, the show evolved from a 30-minute forum with two guests to an hour-long format featuring commentaries by Yankelovich Partners president J. Walker Smith.

During tapings, Coletta listens intently to the national experts' answers. As they talk, you can almost see her thinking, relating the material and ideas back to Memphis. During a recent show on festivals, for example, Burning Man founder Larry Graham spoke about the festival's gift economy: People share their talents, food, and art at Burning Man. The only things sold are ice and coffee. After the interview, Coletta sits back and says that it reminded her of the early, less corporate days of Memphis' barbecue fest.

"One of my main objectives [in doing the show] was to influence what happens in Memphis. When I started it, that was really it," says Coletta. She figured that there were lots of people around the country facing -- and solving -- the same problems that Memphis has. "I said, Let's find these people, talk to these people, and find out how they're doing it and spread the word around Memphis," she says.

Coletta calls Memphis a love affair she can't shake. She's been thinking about this city -- and how to make it better -- for a long time.

"I'd get on the 13 Lauderdale bus when I was in sixth or seventh grade and come downtown and do the whole thing," she says. "There was a little ritual you could go do on Saturdays. It was incredible. A store called Levy's was at the corner of Union and Main -- keep in mind, I still live about two blocks from there. Think about that: I've got a big world, right? They would have these fashion shows in the morning. You'd come down and go to the Levy's fashion show, and then they'd have a band."

From there, the group would head over to Blue Light Studio and have their picture taken and then walk up Beale Street.

"There were some strange people on Beale Street at the time," says Coletta. She wrote former Mayor Henry Loeb a letter telling him exactly what she thought the city should do with Beale Street, a plan she says in some ways resembles Beale today. "[Mayor Loeb] had the head of the housing authority write back to me, telling me what they were going to do. That was how, at a very young age, I acquired all the plans for Beale Street," she says.

Coletta says that if she had to pick one lesson that Memphians should take from the experts she's had on her show, it's that we don't have a unique set of problems to conquer. But that's only if she had to pick one lesson.

"I've seen a lot of 'This is the project. This project is going to [snap!] cure our ills.' This is The Pyramid. This is the mall. This is Mud Island. This is the one-trick-wonder approach to downtown development. I think that's changed dramatically in the past few years," she says. In fact, the downtown-revitalization project is one Coletta says we did right. Citing the strength of Beale combined with AutoZone Park, Toyota Plaza, Peabody Place, and residential growth, Coletta says it's amazing what has happened to downtown.

"I love it. If you look at it, we've just done it backward. It's so typical of Memphis. It's great," says Coletta. "In most cities, business would lead and maybe the residents would follow. Think of the boldness of the downtown developers and even the residents. They're saying, I'm going to have to reverse commute to Collierville, but that's okay. I want to live downtown."

WKNO's director of radio Dan Campbell says that Coletta's experience in public speaking and her interest in city issues, as well as her energy, make the show as well-received as it is.

"It has more than three times the audience we've ever had in that time slot," says Campbell of the show's 9 a.m. Sunday slot. "The audience is typical of our audience: Their education level is fairly high. They're of all income categories. They are curious people who want to continue learning. Carol brings so much to that audience."

Public Radio International (PRI) has shown some interest in distributing the program nationally, but even if that doesn't work out, Campbell can still see Smart City going national in the future.

"It's certainly a program everyone showers with the highest praise," says Campbell. "In this case, it became apparent early on that we'd have to add staff to make all the copies of the show people were requesting." The show's archives can be downloaded from the WKNO Web site.

"Would I like to have a national audience?" asks Coletta. "Absolutely. In a weird way, the number-one reason I'd like to have a national audience is so we have a national show that comes out of Memphis. To me, in a lot of ways, it all gets back to Memphis."

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