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?