Speech Therapy

Richard Florida jump-starts downtown dialogue

Thirteen hundred people packed the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Phoenix on October 21 to hear Richard Florida, author of the wildly successful book Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life, share his recipe for building successful cities.

In urban planning circles, Florida's got the following of a rock star. And in person, he's got the aura of one. But while the charismatic, globetrotting speaker got a glowing reception at the event, which was sponsored by New Times, it was a soft-spoken musician and small businesswoman from Mesa, Kimber Lanning, who got the one standing ovation of the evening.

Florida is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His research emphasizes the economic importance of a powerful group of workers who crave the hustle and bustle of city street culture. He's perhaps best known for his buzz-worthy measures of economic potential, the Bohemian Index and Gay Index.

Richard Florida, the Elvis of urban planning.
Matt Garcia
Richard Florida, the Elvis of urban planning.

At a cocktail party before the speech, Florida drank red wine with the mayors of Tempe and Scottsdale and the mayor-elect of Phoenix, as well as a diverse crowd that included high-powered developers and small gallery owners. Among the attendees: Shelley Cohn, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, former ASU president Lattie Coor, Phoenix Assistant City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Kathleen Thomas, director of Studio LoDo/Phoenix Center for Contemporary Art, attorney Dick Mallery, and Brian Kearney, executive director of the Downtown Phoenix Partnership.

Florida's cultlike popularity was made evident by the line of ticketholders that stretched around the block.

Even before Florida had opened his mouth, some attendees stressed that while they appreciated the professor's ideas, they also wanted to see them translated into real public policy. "It's wonderful for everybody to stand around with a drink in their hand and talk happy," said Eric Gorsegner, who until recently served as deputy chief of staff for Mayor Skip Rimsza. "But it's another thing to actually change the zoning rules, and change the land use policies and subdivision layout. That's where the rubber meets the road, and you won't know whether it made a difference for another five years."

During his speech, Florida told the story of Lycos, the Internet company that was considered the "magic bullet" for rebuilding Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. In 1994, the company's shocking announcement that it was moving to Boston contradicted all of the popular "truths" about economic development that Florida had taught his students: that you must create jobs for your economy to grow, that you must attract companies to create jobs, and that you basically need to dole out bribes to attract companies. "We started to think that maybe we've had our eye on the wrong ball," he said.

From that experience, Florida said, he started to look at places that grow and prosper, examining how they're broadly creative centers -- aesthetically, culturally and politically. He also identified the strength of the Creative Class, which represents 50 percent of all wages and salaries, and started researching what stimulates it. Florida discovered that the Creative Class thrives on quality of place -- a cool music scene, street-level arts, a diverse, open and authentic community -- that's accessible 24/7.

Following his presentation, Florida joined in a panel discussion moderated by Grady Gammage Jr. that included Phoenix mayor-elect Phil Gordon, ASU president Michael Crow, Vice Mayor Greg Stanton, and Lanning, owner of Modified Arts and Stinkweeds and co-founder of Arizona Chain Reaction.

Gordon, who had to leave early because of a scheduling conflict, asked Florida for his thoughts on historic buildings. Florida quoted the legendary author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "Jane Jacobs told me, New ideas require old buildings,'" he said. "People want authenticity."

Stanton mentioned supporting the arts and spreading the word that Phoenix is a child-friendly and gay-friendly city, and Crow talked about how our "social ecology" will only succeed through openness and adaptation, and by valuing people and place above all other things.

Lanning explained the fragility of downtown, and specifically described what she believes the area urgently needs: mixed-use zoning laws and low-interest loans for homebuyers and entrepreneurs.

"Land values are skyrocketing, and we need the city to step in before it's only big-box developers," she said. Lanning pointed to Scottsdale's big expenditures to lure major retailers as the wrong approach to growing the local economy, arguing that the Valley would be better off if it spread the wealth to many more small businesses. The audience responded to Lanning with loud cheers and sustained applause.

Later, Florida agreed. "Let's have a moratorium on mega-projects."

Dozens of people stayed after the presentation to drink cocktails, hear live music from the band Little and have Florida sign their books. There was no small amount of networking, and some unlikely political coupling. For example, Crow and Wayne Rainey, owner of MonOrchid gallery and publisher of Shade magazine, were spotted confabbing by the band.

Many said they were encouraged by the event. "I have high hopes for Phoenix -- otherwise I wouldn't be here," said 27-year-old Leger Stecker, an ASU grad and downtown resident.

Dave Merenda, a 24-year-old independent music distributor, said he didn't know who Richard Florida was before the event, but he was glad he came. "I'm motivated to get more involved now," he said.

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