Fifteen years ago MCI's Chief Technology Officer Richard Liebhaber decided to relocate the crown jewel of the world's second-largest long-distance phone company -- the 4,000-employee Systems Engineering division -- from Washington D.C., to Colorado Springs. An avid skier, Liebhaber told the Wall Street Journal that the proximity to the Rockies, combined with the healthy climate and rock-bottom real estate prices would make MCI's Colorado Springs operation a magnet for "the best and the brightest" computer software engineers.
Liebhaber overrode objections from many of his senior managers, who argued that it would be disastrous to relocate the company's brain trust to an "isolated and politically conservative" city. They believed that many of the company's eclectic, ethnically diverse engineers would refuse to relocate.
If any engineers refused to be transferred west, Liebhaber reasoned they could be quickly replaced by placing help wanted ads in ski magazines. To MCI's chagrin, thousands of their talented engineers either refused to relocate or fled Colorado Springs soon after moving here. "It was like living in a loaf of white bread," then MCI's top engineer James Finucane told the WSJ. Finucane, who is of Japanese descent and whose wife is from Argentina, lamented that Colorado Springs has "no culture, no diversity, no research university, no vitality or resiliency to the job market." His concerns mounted after his son told him that one-third of his high school class didn't believe in evolution.
As new local employees joined MCI, he said, "Religious evangelism began to infiltrate the workplace." Having his co-workers attempt to convert him to Christianity during work hours also turned him off. Two years after relocating to Colorado Springs, Finucane took a job back East with an MCI competitor.
Today MCI's Colorado Springs workforce has fallen 70 percent from its all-time high here. While there are a variety of reasons that the company's local employment dropped, there is no question that our city's ability to recruit and retain talented workers such as the MCI system engineers will largely determine our region's economic vitality in the 21st century.
Flounder or flourish?
Richard Florida in his best-selling book, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, shows that in order to survive, let alone thrive in the competitive worldwide economy, successful cities will be those where young creative adults want to live, work, play and party -- for these young creatives are the engines that will largely determine which post-industrial American cities will flourish and which will flounder.
Rocky Scott, president of the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corporation concurs with Florida's assessment. "It all ties back to demographics. In the past two decades our labor force expanded by 25 percent. In the next two decades, as baby boomers retire, the labor force will expand just a few percent. In order for Colorado Springs to remain competitive, we need to be a community that is attractive to talented people."
Florida, 46, will bring his ideas for community building to Colorado College next Wednesday night. He is hardly the first person to stress the importance of this new group of creative types. Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell predicted its rise 30 years ago, and social scientists have been writing about it ever since under labels ranging from "knowledge" and "information" workers to "symbolic analysts." Stanford University's Paul Romer, son of former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, notes that there is growing recognition that when it comes to economic growth, "the relatively well educated and relatively creative are disproportionately important."
What makes Florida's work so controversial is his emphasis on putting people first. Instead of focusing on traditional economic development tools such as using tax breaks to lure companies, or publicly funded convention centers, highway construction and sports stadiums, Florida's research shows that if a community can attract creatives, then healthy economic development will follow.
"Rote work is increasingly eliminated, off-shored or automated," writes Florida. "Meanwhile the creative sector of our economy, which includes work from engineering design to fashion design, has grown steadily and rapidly over the years."
During the 1990s while America continued to shed manufacturing and agricultural jobs, 20 million new jobs were created in the creative sector. Today, the creative sector of our economy accounts for nearly half of all salary and wages, $1.7 trillion dollars annually, as much as the manufacturing and service sectors combined.
Protestant work ethic
Creative workers now are the post-industrial world's dominant economic force. The creative class spans income levels, races and ages. By and large, it doesn't even know it's a class. As Todd Stauffer writes, "Creatives are people who make their money, reputation and self-definition by directly conjuring products from their minds -- sometimes their gut, sometimes their soul -- and making them available for others to experience and consume." They include scientists, architects, entrepreneurs, teachers, painters, poets, sculptors, academics, dancers, doctors, writers, filmmakers, computer programmers, designers and even journalists -- anyone whose primary task is to use their minds creatively on a daily basis to synthesize answers to problems as they arise.
Already America's dominant economic group, Florida argues that the creative class is likely only to grow as what it produces -- ideas, information and technology -- becomes an ever larger part of the national economy. "Creativity has come to be valued," Florida writes, "because new technologies, new industries, new wealth and all other good economic things flow from it."
This, in essence, is Florida's "creative capital theory." As he recently told the New York Times, "You cannot get a technologically innovative place unless it's open to weirdness, eccentricity and difference."
Creatives aren't slackers. They are people with a Protestant work ethic, but who want the freedom to schedule their days or attack their problems or decorate their offices however they please. They often work 12-hour days, but sometimes start at noon, while wearing shorts and sandals. Creative workers seek much more control over their own schedules than traditional workers. They often trade reduced compensation in order to enjoy the flexibility of taking a day off in the middle of the week to "recharge" by going biking, climbing or camping or to volunteer at their kid's school.
According to Florida, attracting creatives to a community is more important than the traditional economic development practice of using big tax breaks and other high-priced incentives to lure companies to relocate.
If members of the creative class don't need a costly convention center or a downtown professional sports stadium or a mix-master infrastructure of highways, what do they seek? Florida's research shows that creatives -- who increasingly put off settling down and starting families well into their 30s -- move to cities that are authentic and tolerant with convenient access to cultural and outdoor adventuring.
During the 1990s, tens of millions of creatives aged 20 to 34 left cities like Shreveport, La.; Fresno, Calif.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; El Paso, Texas; and Scranton, Penn. Their destination? Places like Austin, Texas; Boston, Santa Barbara, Calif.; San Diego, Chapel Hill, N.C.; Seattle, Madison, Wisc.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and in Colorado, Boulder, Denver and yes, Colorado Springs.
This migration is reshaping our nation's economy. What happens to cities that don't become magnets? "The importance of a Pittsburgh, a Cleveland, an Oklahoma City, an El Paso on the newly emerging business map of the world is in relative decline," writes Don Hicks. "It's like when you put in the interstate highway system, a lot of the places you stopped along Route 66 became ghost towns."
We're number 48!
To make his case, Florida draws on data from the United States Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well as other research to rank cities on their ability to retain and attract creatives. His book and Web site (http://creativeclass.org) includes a creative class index (ranking cities by the percentage of creative workers in their labor force); a high-tech index (ranking cities by the size of their software, electronics and engineering sectors); an innovation index (ranking cities by the number of patents per capita); a talent index (ranking cities by the percentage of college-educated people in their populations); a gay index (ranking cities by the concentration of gay couples in the population); and a bohemian index (a similar ranking of "artistically creative people").
Colorado Springs ranks fairly high on Florida's analytical rankings, 48th out of 276 rated cities. But before we go chanting down Tejon Street shouting, "We're number 48!" let's examine Colorado Springs' strengths and weaknesses.
In the past, Americans tended to live in one city and vacation in another. Creatives seek to integrate recreational adventures into their regular lives. The Pikes Peak region's easy access to amazing biking, hiking, climbing, skiing and river rafting attracts creatives to our region in droves.
Another big competitive plus is our weather. Most people enjoy clear blue skies, mountain vistas, our lack of humidity and mild winters. Folks leave places such as Casper, Wyo., Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio, for places with more inviting climates like San Diego, Tucson, Ariz., and Colorado Springs.
A third advantage is our vicinity to Denver. People can enjoy the benefits of the mountains and living in a less congested small city while being able to take advantage of a major metro area less than two hours away.
But besides these largely geographic plusses, Colorado Springs has little special to offer. Florida's research identifies three areas where Colorado Springs falls far behind other American cities:
Diversity: This region's weakest area in Florida's rankings is a lack of tolerance of diversity. Creatives seek out cities that show signs of "openness to outsiders" and acceptance of creative expression. In fact, Florida finds a direct correlation between high-tech growth and diversity -- and not just ethnic and racial diversity, but also an acceptance toward gays and lesbians. Quoting Bonnie Menes Kahn, author of Cosmopolitan City, Florida writes, "[A] great city has two hallmarks: tolerance for strangers and intolerance for mediocrity."
Colorado Springs' decade-plus long reputation as "hate city" U.S.A. has certainly hurt the community's ability to attract talented workers and high-tech companies. It is hard to quantify how much damage the reputation has had on our economy. EDC President Rocky Scott maintains that "while we have some anticdotal evidence that our reputation sometimes hurts our ability to recruit, it is rare for us to even hear about a company or an individual that declined to even consider our community based on our reputation for intolerance."
Authenticity: Florida's research shows that creatives seek to live in established neighborhoods, enjoy patronizing locally owned businesses, and most of all, seek a vibrant live music scene and unique urban experiences. Especially for creatives in their 20s who tend to be single, an exciting music, dancing, late-night dining and coffeehouse scene are critical.
While there is not much authentic in the miles and miles of big-box strips along Academy and Powers boulevards, El Paso County contains plenty of authentic hip neighborhoods from Woodland Park, Green Mountain Falls, Manitou, Old Colorado City, and especially downtown Colorado Springs.
A critical question for our economic survival is whether Colorado Springs will evolve more into one big mall of sprawling big-box retailers or preserve and expand the unique neighborhoods of our fast-growing community.
University: Perhaps Colorado Springs' biggest competitive disadvantage is our community's lack of a major research university. Because of its military focus and physical distance 20 miles north of downtown, the city's largest institution of higher learning, The Air Force Academy, is just not the catalyst for creativity that a major university usually brings to a community.
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak Community College are still both largely commuter schools, which do not invite the possibility of becoming hip hubs to energize creatives. And 2,000-student private Colorado College is just not large enough to be a creative hub for a city our size.
A good people climate
So how does a small city like Colorado Springs become a growing, thriving creative center? Florida suggests that the three Ts -- technology, talent and tolerance -- lead to a creative community and, hence, a 21st-century economy. Technology-based economic growth requires a creative environment; educated high-tech workers and managers like to live among other creatives and artists.
"Instead of subsidizing companies, stadiums and retail centers, communities need to be open to diversity and invest in the kinds of lifestyle options and amenities that people really want," Florida writes. "In fact, you cannot be a thriving high-tech center if you don't do this."
A city must have a good people climate before an Amazon.com or Dell Computer will move in and set up shop, paying taxes without breaks and incentives. Why? Because those companies need creative people as employees and contractors, and a city with a good people climate provides the lifestyle that keeps those employees happy.
Can Colorado Springs do it? Florida points out that a mere two decades ago, no one would have thought of Austin, Texas -- a smallish, hill-country capital city in the Southern half of the United States -- as a high-tech, creative class mecca. Yet, it ranks second on his list as places attractive to creatives.
In 1990, Austin's average wage lagged behind both Texas and the national average. In the past 15 years, that city's real inflation-adjusted wages averages jumped 67 percent during the decade of the 1990's, while wages in the rest of Texas dropped by 3 percent. During this period average wages in El Paso County increased 11 percent.
The PBS television show Austin City Limits helped give the city a reputation for authentic music, progressive ideas and tolerance. Other creative expression -- Sixth Street, film and music festivals -- made the town become hip and cool. Perhaps most vital, the city and state government built up the University of Texas, attracting research and grant money. The result: Today Austin is a laid-back, creative, progressive, diverse and tolerant booming region, while much of the rest of Texas is struggling.
Here in Colorado Springs, our geographic advantages are such that most other cities would die for. We are in an enviable position. But will we use our advantages to evolve into a competitive creative 21st-century city? The answer is up to us.
Richard Florida discusses the growing role of creativity in our economy
With Susan Edmondson (Bee Vradenburg Foundation), Denise Montgomery (City of Denver) and Rocky Scott (Colorado Springs EDC)
Colorado College's Armstrong Hall, 14 E. Cache La Poudre St.
Wednesday, Nov. 10, 6:30 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.)
Idea: Create a world-class university
Imagine Colorado Springs home to a major research university with 25,000 full-time students attending The Beth El Medical School and Teaching Hospital, The El Pomar Business School, The Tim Gill Engineering and Science Institute, The Independent Multi-Media School of Journalism, the Broadmoor School of Hotel Management, and a host of other programs that would support our region's strengths in the tourism, sports, military, aerospace and satellite technology arenas.
If our city's fathers and mothers united to champion UCCS as our No. 1 priority -- far more important than a new convention center -- by 2025 Colorado Springs could have an ongoing, vital institution that would not only catalyze the launch of new job-creating businesses, but also do much to bolster our community's authenticity, diversity and artistic climate.
Idea: Nurture eco-tourism
Idea: Nurture eco-tourism
Tourism is the world's largest economic sector in terms of both earnings and in number of people employed. Colorado Springs is America's largest metropolitan area nestled by a national park. We need to build on this competitive strength. Coupled with our abundant sunshine, wonderful weather and lack of humidity, the Pikes Peak region could become a much larger tourist destination -- with nearby camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, climbing, kayaking and biking during the day and cultural activities and shopping by night.
Idea: Invest in our culturtal institutions
Colorado Springs is the largest city in the United States that has never had a professionally staffed arts and culture commission. While there are more than 100 professionally staffed arts and cultural nonprofits, they get no financial support from local governments. Currently, Colorado Springs is dead last among the largest American cities for the amount spent per capita on support of the arts. Combined with the fact that the state of Colorado also ranks 49th in per capita state support for the arts, there is not enough support to fund these institutions that are so important to making our city more attractive to both high tech companies and creative workers. The difference between cultural mediocrity and world-class activities is just pennies per person per week (see www.pikespeakartscouncil.org).
Idea: Bullet trains
By 2025, we should work with Denver to develop high-speed bullet trains between Colorado's two largest cities. Government-financed bullet trains are a reality in Japan and France, whisking passengers at 200 miles per hour between cities. A high-speed bullet train network from Pueblo to Ft. Collins should be in our close-range future. Other states are already working on such measures. For example, in 2000, Florida's voters endorsed an amendment directing its Legislature to develop and operate a high-speed ground transportation system capable of speeds in excess of 120 mph. There is no denying that the technology exists here to make the Colorado Springs to Denver trip in just a half hour (seewww.media - visions.com/colorado/transportation.html)
Idea: Nurture downtown
A decade ago, downtown was dead. Besides the Poor Richard's complex (anyone still remember the Flick?) and the Ritz Grill, there was not much going on. Thanks to the work of former Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace as well as the Downtown Partnership and dozens of entrepreneurs and developers, we've got the Farmers' and Artists' Market, Kimball's Twin Peak Theater, the Uncle Wilber Fountain, 32 Bleu, Phantom Canyon brewpub and pool hall, sidewalk dining, and more than 100 unique diverse establishments. With the planned expansion of both Colorado College and the Fine Arts Center's art and cultural offering, CC's new civic engagement initiative, the expanded downtown improvement district, the creation of Confluence Park and development of the DADA arts district, the future of downtown appears bright. We need to continue efforts to make downtown the cultural center of our community.