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Doug Koelemay


Competing for the Creative Class

With Richard Florida now at GMU, Fairfax County is debating what it takes to recruit and retain the creative geniuses who propel the economy forward.


What Dr. Robert Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. calls “knowledge workers” (See "Technology’s Long Wave", April 11, 2005), Dr. Richard Florida, now a star faculty member at George Mason University, calls “the creative class.” Both are interpreting transformations underway in lifestyles, work, quality and competitiveness. Both are trying to direct future policies toward economic growth and a higher quality of life. And though Dr. Florida is not focused on technology like Dr. Atkinson, he concludes that now, more than ever, the future belongs to those states and regions that create, nurture, support and attract the creative class -- scientists, architects, engineers, entertainers, content providers, educators, entrepreneurs, financial and legal professionals.


Few regions, it turns out, have tackled that challenge more successfully in recent years than Northern Virginia, specifically Fairfax County. That could help explain Dr. Florida’s own move from Carnegie-Mellon University to George Mason University last year. His latest book is The Flight of the Creative Class (Harper-Business 2005), which points out how every country is now working to keep or attract those who once naturally sought out the United States.


Fairfax County is the heart of one of only 10 percent of regions that continues to attract more “creative class” employees than they produce. Dr. Florida’s new colleague at George Mason University, Dr. Stephen Fuller, has just documented Fairfax County’s growth from 490,000 people and 148,700 jobs in 1970 to 1.1 million people and 847,900 jobs today. That’s 123 percent growth in people, but a 470 percent growth in jobs. And they are the best jobs. The gross county product has grown 874 percent to $76 billion in the same 35 year period.


Dr. Fuller’s modeling shows that the gross Fairfax County product could double to $156 billion by 2030 as the county’s number of jobs grows to 1.4 million, almost matching its new population of 1.5 million. If it does, the economic engine in Northern Virginia, utilizing what Fuller calls “more better jobs,” will continue to power both the Commonwealth’s economy and that of Greater Washington.


But Dr. Florida warns that there is a big if to that extraordinary future. Can Fairfax County, Northern Virginia and the Commonwealth provide the best answers to the key questions of the creative class: “What’s there? Who’s there? What’s going on?” The wrong answers here can mean the most talented and best jobs move somewhere else.


The best answers, Florida advised a group of citizens this week pondering the more urban future of Tysons Corner in Fairfax, are greater openness (“Greater Washington is one of the great immigrant gateways in the world at a time we are competing with every other country for talent and entrepreneurship.”), greater tolerance for alternative lifestyles (“We are competing for growing numbers of single, highly talented adults.”), urban revitalization (“There is a direct correlation between density and urbanization in the economy and its attractiveness for creative types.”), greater affordability of housing (“Northern Virginia is in a housing affordability nightmare.”) and increased public investments in R&D, the arts and education.


Fuller documents the housing shortage, too. At a ratio of one household for every 1.5 jobs, Fairfax County currently has a housing deficit of 164,000 units. (There is no mystery about what is driving annual double-digit growth in property assessments). Fairfax will need another 175,500 housing units after filling that deficit to accommodate those projected to live in the county in 2030. Office space in Fairfax, already the largest concentration between Philadelphia and Atlanta, will need to grow from 110 million square feet now to 202 million square feet to accommodate the workers.


Yet, the advice from Dr. Florida and the work of economists, such as Dr. Fuller and Dr. Atkinson, on the global economy and new competitiveness, challenges current economic development strategies and political understanding. A Fairfax woman told a public meeting this week that greater density in developments around Metrorail stations that mix residential, office and retail space (also know as transit-oriented development) would “ruin our suburban way of life.”


“My vision of Fairfax County 25 years from now is the way Fairfax County looked 25 years ago!” she declared, oblivious that the Fairfax population density of 1,600 people per square mile then already has grown to 2,700 people per square mile (about the same density as Buffalo, Columbus, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle). Fairfax County is projected to have 3,900 people per square mile in 2030.


But that women is not alone in her misunderstanding. Two Northern Virginia Congressmen casually commented this week they didn’t think extending Metrorail through Tysons Corner and Fairfax should mean higher density at Metro Stations sites. Exactly where else the housing and office space might be concentrated is not clear.


A Northern Virginia candidate for statewide office is campaigning on the negative effects of Virginia relying on workers abroad, although if the “jobs filled by foreigners” door closes, her region that would be the biggest loser of foreign-born technology workers, business executives, scientists and engineers and the global companies that employ them.


Some Northern Virginia legislators were among the leaders of the 2005 General Assembly punitive initiatives against undocumented foreign workers and alternate lifestyles without regard for the benefits of being seen as a “gateway.” Two spent the week complaining to the media about a student-organized discussion of sexuality at George Mason University, apparently fearful that learning could break out in an institution of higher education.


These officials apparently could care less that their attitudes and expressions could not only damage the most positive Fairfax answers to “What’s there? Who’s there? What’s going on?” They apparently are unaware that such looks backward and compulsion to tell others how to live their lives actually could help other regions overtake Fairfax County and Northern Virginia as “the great place to live” that the creative class is looking for. If one thinks oil shortages and cuts in federal spending may have negative effects on the economy, consider a talent and entrepreneurship shortage triggered by such shortsightedness. The creative class that cuts across every country and cultures can decide to center in any country or culture, not just that of the United States.


Also addressing the citizens group discussing the future of Tysons Corner was Joe Brown, President and Chief Executive Office of EDAW, an award-winning, global urban design firm that includes Alexandria in its office locations around the world. Brown advised Fairfax County citizens together to seize the demographic and economic forces at work to create a great city in Tysons, one marked by an enjoyable public realm, a variety of housing, new connectivity and high-quality amenities and infrastructure.


“You must shape these forces and lead the process,” Brown added, “and avoid an accidental, fragmented design by argument.” Drs. Florida and Fuller, that citizen group studying Tysons Corner and those students at George Mason University are providing some thoughts and actions in that direction. Some of Virginia’s so-called political leaders, on the other hand, appear stuck in the problem and distracted by the politics of the moment. “Politics, politicians and more politics” will never be the best answers to the questions of the creative class.


-- April 25, 2005















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J. Douglas Koelemay

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Qorvis Communications

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McLean, Virginia 22102

Phone: (703) 744-7800

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Email:   dkoelemay@qorvis.com


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