I delivered this speech last night to a gathering at the Branch House in an event hosted by the Virginia Center for Architecture. — JAB
Buffalo, N.Y., a metropolitan region about the size of Richmond, is debating how to pay for a new $1 billion stadium complex for the Buffalo Bills National Football League team. The City of Richmond is debating how to pay for a $56 million stadium for the Richmond Squirrels AA baseball team. I don’t know if Buffalo will ever find the money, but it really doesn’t matter. If professional sports is your yardstick of metropolitan prestige, Buffalo is running – maybe I should say stampeding — Richmond into the dirt.
But, objectively speaking – assuming this audience can be objective – where would you rather live? Let’s look at some commonly used metrics:
- The Richmond metropolitan region has a lower unemployment rate than the Buffalo metro – 4.8% compared to 5.8%.
- Richmond has a lower poverty rate – 11.6% compared to 14.4%.
- Richmond has a higher median household income — $55,300 compared to $46,400.
I think we can safely and objectively say that big league sports is no guarantee of metropolitan prosperity.
While Richmond can’t seem to get a minor league baseball stadium off the ground, consider VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art. The community managed to raise $33 million through private philanthropy with no angst whatsoever.
Pro football or contemporary art. What do our choices tell us about the Richmond region? Richmond is an artsy fartsy kind of town. And that’s OK. In fact, I’m going to argue that artsy fartsy is a good thing as we reinvent ourselves for the 21st-century Knowledge Economy.
It is commonplace today to observe that the biggest challenge for any metropolitan region is recruiting and retaining the highly skilled, highly creative citizens – scientists, artists, educators, entrepreneurs – who drive innovation and contribute disproportionately to economic growth. Somewhat more controversially, I would argue, those desirable citizens are more likely to want to live and build a career in a region that has vibrant arts & culture than one that has big league athletics.
If you accept that proposition, then it tells you a lot how we ought to be investing our civic capital. For the billion dollars it would take Buffalo, N.Y., to build a bigger, better stadium for the Buffalo Bills, we could make Richmond the arts capital of the Southeastern U.S.!
The urban geographer Richard Florida made a big splash thirteen years ago when he published the book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” His argument, boiled down to its essence, is that Americans, young Americans especially, were increasingly likely to choose where to live based on the attributes of the region rather than because that’s where they could find a job. He turned economic development on its head. Instead of recruiting corporations, we should be recruiting the creative class. Corporations will follow the creative in order to gain access to employees with the higher-order skills and aptitudes that are in short supply.
If we embrace that perspective, we need to ask two fundamental questions: (1) What does it take to attract young professionals to RVA? and (2) What does it take to keep them here? In other words, how do we do a better job with recruitment and retention?
Richmond has a relatively stable population. We don’t get a huge flux of people moving in or moving out. Fortunately, we do seem to attract more people than we lose — we experience net in-migration. Between 2013 and 2014, the Internal Revenue Service recorded the influx of nearly 32,000 new “tax returns” into the core Richmond region – by which I mean Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover. During the same period, those four localities experienced an out-migration of 29,000 tax returns. That represented a net gain of about 2,800 tax-paying households in a region with about 300,000 tax returns – or a gain of not quite one percent. That’s not bad. But it could be better: We’re not in the same league as national talent magnets like Austin or Raleigh, much less Silicon Valley.
Interestingly, two-thirds of the in-migration came from other locales in Virginia, only one-third from outside the state. Pending closer analysis of the numbers, I would conjecture that that RVA functions as a regional magnet for talent, as opposed to a national magnet, drawing mainly upon the hinterland of smaller Virginia cities and towns. Many could come from the many fine colleges and universities in the state. But we really don’t know. There’s a lot we still need to learn.
Fortunately, the Richmond’s Future Foundation has been giving a lot of thought to these issues, and it has underwritten some really interesting work by the Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR). In 2013 SIR surveyed college students and young professionals both from Richmond and from peer metros to get an idea of what drove them to locate in a particular region.
In partial contradiction to Richard Florida, the single most important thing to young people when deciding where to live is getting a job. Fifty-seven percent said that finding a job was the first consideration. However, 24% said location was the top consideration, and 19% cited people.
This doesn’t totally invalidate the Creative Class theory, but it does modify it. The data reflect the different circumstances of 2014 compared to 2001 when Florida wrote his book using data from the Internet boom. Back then, the national economy was incredibly robust, unemployment was low and people had a lot more job choices than they do today. Back then, people could afford to be choosey. Today, they can’t. In hard times, jobs will tend to come first. So, quality of life is less decisive than it was before the Great Recession – but it’s still a factor and it could be a bigger one if the job market strengthens.
Also, I’d note, quality of life seems to be a more important consideration for people living in the Richmond area. Among the Richmond college kids surveyed, the importance attached to location was significantly higher than for college kids outside the region. Clearly, Richmond as a place exerts a strong pull on the people who live here. That’s something we can build on.
SIR’s survey also detailed what young professionals like about the region. Here’s a list of regional attributes and the percentage of respondents who gave positive ratings to them:
- Food scene — 83% positive rating
- Outdoor recreation — 83%
- Arts scene — 78%
- Urban living environment — 65%
- Music scene — 64%
We need to bear these findings in mind as we allocate community resources. While Richmond’s Future, the Chamber of Commerce and others have made a lot of progress thinking about what it takes to build a creative, innovative community, we haven’t thought as much about what kinds of investments we need to make. Let me offer some preliminary thoughts to foster that conversation.
First, it’s helpful to draw a distinction between hard infrastructure and soft infrastructure. Hard infrastructure refers to the built environment –utilities, roads, highways, bike lanes, and so on.
As it happens, the Richmond region is the least traffic congested of the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the country. That’s good news for those of us who live in the suburbs and commute to work by car. But does that kudo win us national recognition? Sadly no. No one seems to compile lists of the Top 10 Least Congested Metros in the country. Building more roads and shaving a minute off the length of the average commute will not affect the way young people perceive RVA.
By contrast, building more bicycle lanes and more walkable streets very well might make a difference in how the region is perceived. When young people think about mobility and access, they think about bicycle lanes, sidewalks and mass transit – not how congested the local streets are.
By those metrics, the Richmond region wouldn’t score in the Top 10 of anything good. I looked up the walk scores for local jurisdictions, and this is what I found:
Downtown Richmond – 87 walk score on a one to one-hundred scale — “very walkable”
Short Pump, Henrico – 28 walk score — “car dependent”
Meadowbrook, Chesterfield – 12 walk score — really “car dependent”
If we want bicycle lanes, if we want walkability, if we want financially self-sustaining mass transit (as to money-draining mass transit), then we need to pay close attention to the pattern and density of land use. We need to embrace some version of “smart growth” or “New Urbanism,” which pays close attention to walkability. The physical design of our communities is a critical component in making RVA an inviting place for young professionals to live. Architects, designers and urban planners have a crucial role to play. Indeed, this topic is so important that the Virginia Center for Architecture will host a panel discussion on it next month. (Mark your calendars for February 12!)
What do I mean by soft infrastructure? We can get an idea by going through the list of community assets identified by SIR as being important to young professionals. A common thread, in contrast to hard infrastructure, is that there is only a limited role for government. For the most part, these assets need to grow organically from the community.
Great food scene. A foodie scene is a huge asset in recruiting young professionals to RVA, although it’s not an area where government and civic leaders can help directly. Outside of enforcing health standards and building codes, the last thing we want is for government to get involved in the restaurant business! Richmonders developed a highly regarded food scene while the movers and shakers weren’t paying any attention. One day, we woke up and realized, holy moly, this is a great restaurant town! Turn the foodie entrepreneurs loose, and they’ll do the rest.
Outdoor recreation. Richmond has great outdoor recreation. We’ve got white water kayaking, dirt bike trails, river swimming, 1OK races and much, much more. Richmond is for doers, not watchers. Young professionals would rather go out and play sports themselves rather than watch other people playing sports. In that regard, the Richmond Sports Backers is arguably a much more important civic institution than the Richmond Squirrels. Sports Backers acts as a catalyst for participative sports and, in doing so, it creates the kind of events that young professionals like to participate in.
With one exception, there is little useful that government can do in this sphere. However, that one exception is pretty darn important – only government can take the lead in creating a world-class park system along the James River. All Richmonders recognize what an incredible asset the river is. We need to invest in that asset. While the philanthropic sector can help, only government has the resources to make it happen.
The Arts scene. For a region our size, Richmond is blessed. The VCU arts school has 3,100 students, making it one of the largest in the country. Thirty percent of those art students stay in Richmond, providing a talent stream for the important advertising-marketing business cluster. We also have the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, of course, and art galleries galore. What kind of soft infrastructure can we build to support arts & culture? Well, the Institute for Contemporary Art is a great example – among other things, the ICT will host rotating displays of artistic work coming out of VCU and the Richmond region. And here, I would be remiss not to put in a plug for the Virginia Architecture Center, which aspires to become a force for elevating the level of architecture and design throughout the Mid-Atlantic. As a community, we should rally around institutions like ICT and the Virginia Architecture Center. If we can put Richmond on the arts map nationally, we can change perceptions about the region among people who really matter.
Let me draw another sports analogy. Green Bay, Wisconsin, home to the Green Bay Packers, punches way above its weight in the football world. Richmond should aspire to punch above its weight in the arts world. If we mobilized around our artistic institutions like Green Bay does around the Packers, we could compete with the likes of Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., for artistically inclined members of the creative class.
Music scene. Young professionals regard Richmond’s music scene as adequate, not awesome. That’s inevitable, given the economics of the music industry. L.A., New York and Nashville suck up most of the top talent, making it difficult for anyone else to compete at the same level. Insofar as musicians like participating in a larger artistic community, however, supporting the arts here may improve the quality of the local music scene. Meanwhile, we can make Richmond a more attractive market for big-name bands and musicians to come play. I suspect that’s the motivation behind Venture Richmond’s push to expand the number of concerts and variety of concert venues in the city. Again, government really doesn’t have a role here – except to mediate with the community. While concerts are loads of fun for music goers, they may not be so fun for people living nearby who may or may not have a taste for loud music at late hours of the evening.
Drawing this strands of thought together… We should follow our instincts and let Richmond be Richmond. We shouldn’t model ourselves after anyone else. If we do look to other places for inspiration, we should learn from cities like Philadelphia and Austin, which are known for their artistic communities. Our emphasis on arts & culture didn’t make an especially good fit with the old Industrial Economy, but it is perfectly compatible with economic development in the Knowledge Economy. Following our hearts won’t make us the next boom town –but, then, we don’t want to become the next boom town, with all the instability and dislocation that entails. We can become a place where creative people want to live and work, and that will fuel the rise of an entrepreneurial economy that carries us to the next level of prosperity and well being.There are currently no comments highlighted.