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Creating the creative class


Former Austin, Texas, Mayor Kirk Watson told an audience assembled by the Downtown Community Alliance last week that when he asked his wife of more than 30 years on a date for the first time, she rebuffed him, telling him she was waiting for someone else to invite her to the school dance.

The moral to the story: A better deal doesn’t always come along.

That kind of thinking helped Austin earn the No. 1 spot on The Creativity Index, promoted by author Richard Florida in his 2002 book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” which changed the way economic development is viewed. No longer are bricks and mortar enough to create a city that will attract and retain the best and the brightest workers.

At the lecture series sponsored by the DCA and in a meeting with the Business Record’s editorial board, Watson offered some practical – and, as important in this time of tight budgets, relatively inexpensive – tips on cultivating a creative class in Des Moines.

Some of our favorites:

o Work with institutions of higher learning – Drake University, for example – to create downtown student housing and offer frequent, reliable shuttle transportation to the campus across town. More students downtown equals high energy and vitality, and creates a demand for more live entertainment, one of the aspects of Austin’s culture that sets it apart from other cities. Watson advises giving some of the city’s vacant lots to universities and letting them use their money to construct the dormitories, rather than waiting for the elusive better deal.

o Do more to encourage second-tier artists. It’s not just the “SOBs” – symphonies, operas and ballets – that contribute to the culture of a city, but the for-profit artists who pay sales tax, income tax and, if their businesses are properly stimulated to the point they become self-supporting businesses, property taxes so desperately needed in Des Moines. To accomplish that, Watson suggests creating an “artistic incubator” offering incentives that would fill abandoned storefronts by rotating artists in and out, much in the same way business incubators shelter start-up companies.

o Do more to encourage participation by minorities. As he looked around the hotel banquet room at last week’s lecture, Watson saw only white faces. More needs to be done to bring minorities to the table, to show to current and future residents that we’re not a completely homogenous community and that we value diversity of people, thought and ideas.

There are other ideas, all pointing to a single need: In creating the creative class, Des Moines needs to get more creative.  

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