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Young, Restless... and Fed Up!

Bureaucrats Pay Big Bucks to Learn What's "Hip"

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This is not a story about a young graphic artist who moved to Portland and watched her professional dreams blossom. This is not the story of a burgeoning fashion industry that is developing in spite of benign neglect from the city government. This is a story about a group of bureaucrats and business leaders who spent a LOT of money trying to figure out how to attract and hold the so-called "creative class" here.

According to commonly held wisdom and census number crunching, most economists agree that over the next few years the economy in America's urban centers will undergo a major shift. As the current generation of 24- to 35-year-olds settle into their professional lives, the national economy is expected to re-center itself around a "knowledge-based" economy--one based on creativity and ingenuity as opposed to backbreaking jobs. Portland wants to be part of this transformation. Released last month, a study entitled "The Young and The Restless: How Portland Competes for Talent" seems to be the first turn of the bureaucratic wheels towards an attempt at institutionalizing the creative class here. But early indications show that the city may not be moving in the right direction.

Co-commissioned by Portland Development Commission (PDC), Westside Economic Alliance, the City of Beaverton and Nike, the recently released report purports to analyze the "young and restless"--the millions of intelligent young writers, designers, engineers, and others who migrate from city to city. The report puts this demographic under the microscope. With cities like Nashville, Austin, Denver, and Portland competing to draw new blood into their local economies, this group has become perhaps the most coveted sector of the work force.

Unfortunately, the "Young and Restless" report is heavy on platitudes and skimpy on the details; geared more to the aging bureaucrat who tunes to VH1 to figure out what's "hip." And this information doesn't come cheap; the report cost a reported $25,000--more than double any direct investment that the city has bothered to apply towards truly supporting artists.

Filled with J.Crew-style photos of

20 -and early 30-somethings smiling, wearing suits, and riding bikes, the report poses its central theme: "Will Portland catch this wave and prosper or capsize and flounder?"

Looking at stats like education levels and migration patterns, the report provides several middling answers. Out of 50 cities, the number of college graduates here ranks 27th overall; for every ten 25- to 34-year-olds who have moved here, six have left. Yet, in spite of the mixed results, civic leaders are glowing over the results.

"Quite revealing, quite telling, " said Jon Schlueter, executive director for Westside Economic Alliance. He went on to point out how many ethnic minorities--Asians, Latinos, and African Americans--the report says are moving here. However, he failed to note a more telling statistic, one that says out of the 50 cities surveyed, Portland is 49th in terms of African American population in this 25- to 34-year-old age group. A more apt response to this information would be: Yes, it may be changing, but it's still woefully homogenous.

Taken in its entirety, the report reads more like a Chamber of Commerce brochure than a hardworking analysis. In its conclusion, for example, it delivers largely unhelpful platitudes: "Nothing is more important than delivering an appealing reality. Substance is what counts. Young people are very savvy in assessing cities. Personal contacts and networks shape the menu of choices when 25- to 34-year-olds consider moving from place to place. Finally, young people are mobile. They vote with their feet."

Anne Mangan, a marketing coordinator for PDC, admitted that, "Some information contained (in the report) confirms what we already knew." When asked how the study would manifest itself in new programs to attract and hold the "young and restless," Mangan replied, "I can't point you to anything specific."

"We're trying to put some of our energies behind creative energy here," she claimed. "As well as fund ways to be more welcoming."

The city officials and business leaders interviewed for this story routinely pointed out that the mayor has already funded a cluster of $500 and $750 grants to individual artists given out this past spring. (Collectively, the city gave out $10,000--quite a bit less than the cost of the report.)

In spite of the report's mixed results, most civic leaders seem to be choosing to express optimism and pat themselves on the back. Meanwhile, other cities have already started building infrastructure and programs to support the creative class. In Austin, for example, their city government has long had a "bed tax" (for hotels) to help fund the Austin Convention Center. That auditorium has been the nucleus for growth of the city's bustling music scene.

In Chicago last week, mayor Richard Daley opened a massive 25-acre cutting-edge public park--a project he spearheaded. The space includes a space-age auditorium designed by Frank Gehry. Not only does that physical space enhance the livability of downtown, it's a functional, world-class venue for outdoor concerts. The city also sponsors the only artist business incubator in the country.

Meanwhile, the city government in Portland has been, at best, idle. An attempt four years ago to designate an Old Town building as an artist community fell flat on its face when the space didn't have necessary amenities, too-high rent and, consequently, not enough tenants to support itself.

The "Young and Restless" report is not without merit: It truly is a half-full/half-empty scenario. But instead of congratulating themselves for what already exists in town, city leaders would best serve this demographic and the city's future economy by considering what they can do to fill up the rest of the glass. The report correctly points out that over the next few years, this demographic will largely find and move to the cities where they plan to live and work. What decisions are made over the next few years will lay the foundation for various cities' economies for decades to come. Now is not the time to crow about the creative class that exists here already but rather, it's the time for the city to rely less on focus groups, and step up with new and innovative programs.

The report is available at: www.pdc.us

by Phil Busse

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