This picture is from the Main Street Music & Art Festival in Niagara Falls, NY. Photo Courtesy: www.womadistrict.com
(July 26, 2012) The “Creative Class” is now an entrenched part of the lexicon of planners, economic development seekers, and even mayors around the country. Comprised largely of educated young professionals seeking the urbane, the Creative Class is today seen as the key to reviving the economies of post-industrial cities. Naturally, cities from coast to coast are striving rigorously to lure this important demographic. New York, Washington D.C., Austin, Seattle and San Francisco don’t need to work as hard to attract the Creative Class as do the Clevelands, Buffalos, Milwaukees, and Omahas: these cities, to capture the Creative Class, have to be, well, creative. And that is happening. Mid and small size cities, loved by those who live there because of the outstanding and unique assets, are proving there are methods to generating the buzz needed to lure the creatives to try living in a city that is yet to become a proven commodity.
One of the cities facing this kind of marketing challenge is Niagara Falls, New York. Although the stream of visitors to the Falls has been as endless as the water cascading over the escarpment, the city has lost an astonishing 50,000 people, down 58% from its peak of 120,000 in 1960. It struggles with blight, a problem that serves to create more of itself until the cycle is broken. Despite the out-migration, Niagara Falls still has solid assets and also potential that is on its way to being actualized as the city focuses on restoring its downtown district. Niagara Falls is blessed not only with one of the world’s natural wonders, it is also close to major metros Buffalo and Toronto. Knowing its strengths and the imperative of restoring downtown, Niagara Falls is creatively reaching out to the Creative Class. It has dangled what it hopes is tasty bait: the city’s assistance with paying off student loans.
Up to twenty recent graduates with two-year or four-year undergraduate degrees or graduate degrees that buy or rent market-rate properties in a specified center-city zone can receive up to $15,000 in loan repayment funds; a minimum two-year residency is required. Niagara Falls officials believe that even as few as 100 takers could turn the downtown around. Two hundred recent graduates from around the country have already inquired about the program.
Many of the program’s opponents cite blight as a reason that the targeted young professionals will stay away. Yet the Creative Class seems to possess an encouraging, growing penchant for living in transitional, even gritty locales, as evidenced by an influx of ‘urban pioneers’ into the City of Detroit, and into places like Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. In Rochester, an old building torched by an arsonist six years ago in the tough Marketview Heights neighborhood is now loft apartments, full of young professionals that apparently don’t mind the constant passing of freight trains just feet beyond their windows. These are people that could probably live anywhere, and they chose Marketview Heights, with its proximity to the colorful, bustling Rochester Public Market, the adjacent Neighborhood of the Arts, and rising downtown. What’s more, these Station 55 lofts offer affordability without compromising urban amenities and choice.
Detroit has launched creative incentive programs too, except these are private and nonprofit initiatives as opposed to government. Five companies with downtown Detroit operations have offered cash incentives, totaling $4 million, to employees choosing to live downtown. This Live Downtown program—with a tag line “It Pays to Live Downtown, Literally”–has so far attracted 150 applicants and 300 new downtown residents. Participants receive a forgivable loan of $20,000 towards purchase of their downtown home; each year they get $2,500 towards first-year costs of the home. Those already in downtown homes can get up to $5,000 towards exterior work.
Challenge Detroit held a unique competition to attract the Creative Class. The prize: a year-long opportunity to work for one of 30 participating Detroit companies. Winners are expected to contribute to the civic life and revitalization of the city though ten “team challenges” they are issued during the year. An impressive 900 applicants from across the country submitted applications, and 30 inaugural winners were chosen. In addition to the job, winners are also granted a $500 per month stipend for their housing.
These kinds of incentives have yielded some fruit. But even more challenging is the Creative Class quests of cities smaller than Niagara Falls, and of rural towns and villages.
Paducah, Kentucky (pop. 26,000) is truly an off-the-beaten-path place, certainly not plugged into the consciousness of the Creative Class. Yet through its “Artist Relocation Programs”, Paducah has attracted 70 qualifying, civic-minded artists from around the country with $1 properties, $5,000 renovation/rehab assistance, matching funds for marketing, and more. These artists have collectively pumped $30 million in the center city.
In rural Kansas—just about as rural as it can get—fifty counties float waivers of Kansas income tax for five years and student loan payments to $15,000. So far, 382 applications have been received in just a year, including 140 from thirty other states.
True, gobs of graduates are still going to be magnetized to the largest, chicest cities, but these are also the most expensive. With those prices going up even further at the same time college graduates are entering a scarce job market with higher mountains of student loan debt, the Niagara Falls, Buffalos, Rochesters, and Syracuses will seem better and better.
Getting jobs there is key though. Upstate cities must try hard to attract entrepreneurs as well as urban pioneers—to the extent possible, potential job creators as well as seekers.
With a combination of great assets and creative, forward thinking, Niagara Falls and the “rust belt” can make a strong play for the transforming workforce and community members of the future.
This piece has been contributed by Evan Lowenstein, Empire State Future Consultant, Green Village Consulting