Us vs. Them

New Times is bringing pop-culture luminary Richard Florida to the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix at 6:30 p.m. on October 21. We expect him to save us from ourselves. You're invited; tickets are free.

Florida was last year's -- "Check out the big brain on Brad" -- author of The Rise of the Creative Class, a learned yet painfully obvious best seller on how some cities create vibrant downtowns, while others create downtown Phoenix.

For all of the open space and comfort many find in the suburban nature of Phoenix, there are those who seek the community, the racial and sexual diversity of a real downtown -- those who are in open rebellion against the relentless march of strip malls.

Great restaurants, bars, parks, pedestrian neighborhoods, galleries, cultural venues and music beget smart, and smart-ass, residents who, in turn, attract knowledge-based businesses looking to start up or relocate. Florida points out that the work force in America has shifted dramatically from the nation's historic manufacturing base. Today, 30 percent of employees are well-educated, creative and motivated by lifestyle choices both at work and at home. The next wave of economic development will favor communities that attract a young population seeking flexibility on the job and vitality on the streetscape, argues Florida. (New Times writer Michele Laudig's take on the author and urban guru accompanies this column.)

Suddenly, with the arrival of Florida's book, people with too much black in their closet found themselves armed with a manifesto when confronting thoughtless development. And because Florida is not some self-absorbed, lazy blogger but rather the H. John Heinz III Professor of Regional Economic Development, Heinz School of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon University (hey! . . . you try fitting that gracefully into a sentence), his work is backed up with an intellectual rigor that bankers and Chamber of Commerce members acknowledge.

His ideas, like a styling gel for the urban soul, stiffened the resolve of dreamers in city halls, espresso bars, think tanks and lofts across America. He was in demand, so much so that he has already talked to Valley movers and shakers as well as to those in the economic development infrastructure.

We are bringing Florida here to speak to the public because the fuse in downtown Phoenix is sizzling:

• The city has $600 million budgeted to expand the downtown convention center and is looking at another $300 million for a new convention hotel. That amounts to nearly $1 billion targeted downtown -- and not a penny of it spent wisely.

• A controversial light-rail system on the drawing board will link the vast horizontal spaces downtown where lofts and condominiums are starting to sprout. The light-rail will also couple Phoenix with downtown Tempe. Needing legislative and public approval by next spring, the nearly $16 billion transportation package of rail and freeway investment threatens to become a punching bag of the taxophobics.

• On June 19, the Arizona Republic revealed the formation of a blue-ribbon task force made up of estimable sports impresario Jerry Colangelo, the publisher of the daily paper covering the task force, the heads of Valley utilities, banks and development companies, as well as Chamber leaders and scattered politicos. If all of the names are already familiar to you -- and how could they not be -- it is only because the impression is left that this is a committee that never actually disbands.

But there is something unique about this group.

Local charitable foundations have kicked in nearly $300,000 in grants so that the task force can study how local arts and culture can . . . strengthen economic development.

It would appear that the blue-ribbon commission is lifting more than a few pages from Florida's thesis. In fact, the foundations are candid that the choice of downtown Phoenix by a new genome research consortium spurred this investigation into what it would take to attract more industry based upon high-paying, creative jobs.

And while the task force is regional in outlook and composition, the implications for downtown Phoenix are immense. Beyond the address of the research center, the largest concentration of arts and cultural facilities throughout the Valley is in downtown Phoenix.

One would like to remain hopeful. Can one remain hopeful and alarmed at the same time?

Clearly, many of the participants and financiers on the blue-ribbon committee, for example, have been exposed to Florida's message. Exposure is not the same thing, at all, as getting it.

The Valley's movers and shakers joined a blue-ribbon task force to gird local arts and culture in part because of surveys and focus groups that told them this was the key to attracting new, knowledge-based industries.

"Young people, knowledge workers" are concerned about "quality of life," said Judy Jolley Mohraz, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, which is joined by the Flinn Foundation, the J.W. Kieckhefer Foundation and the Margaret T. Morris Foundation in underwriting more than a quarter of a million dollars in expenses for the arts-and-culture task force.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey