by Michael Bowen

Spokane can't be such a cultural backwater. Not the place where I've chosen to live. We're about average, I'd reckon. I mean, we've got some artsy stuff going on, and you always hear those cliches about the advantages of a big city with the feel of a small town. Spokane is -- all together now -- "a great place to raise a family." On the other hand, there's the way that L.A. Times sportswriter Jim Murray, after coming up here to cover some WSU sports, damned us with faint praise: "The trouble with Spokane is that there's nothing to do after 10. In the morning." Still, we must be about average. Aren't we? Even Murray thought this town was "a nice place to have breakfast."

So when I stumbled across an Internet quiz entitled "Put Your City to the Test," I figured that Spokane would snuggle up somewhere in the mediocre middle. The questions asked about how we welcome outsiders, our jobs and nightlife, our restaurants and colleges and media, our civic self-view. The quiz makers had a sense of humor: in asking about where our new jobs come from, the final choice reads, "We have discovered the wave of the future: casinos." Or the least desirable answer about local radio: "Top 40, sports talk, and local Rush Limbaugh clones." Or about nightlife: "Aside from the casinos, it's Salt Lake City without the Olympics." Ha! We'll do pretty well on this test for sure.

Then I scored the exam. On a 100-point scale, I had pegged us at a 10. As in near the bottom, not even close to mediocre. The testmakers' advice? "Your city is dead in the water. Get into the next lifeboat and join the crowds paddling away."

I waited two weeks, retook the quiz. Still a 10. Nearing desperation, I asked friends and coworkers to log on and take the test. The majority scored Spokane at 20 or lower; one sourpuss rated us "at a negative 35," then got all optimistic and turned out a score of... 10. Nobody ventured above a middling score. Clearly, in our collective view, Spokane was ostentatiously subpar. This not being golf, that ain't good.

Who's Creative?

The quiz had been devised, fiendishly, by a professor of regional economic development at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, along with some of his graduate students. His name is Richard Florida, and his new book seems to be the sociological treatise du jour. It's entitled The Rise of the Creative Class, and How It's It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002). In it, Florida advances a theory "that regional economic growth is driven by the location choices of creative people -- the holders of creative capital -- who prefer places that are diverse, tolerant and open to new ideas."

Core members of the creative class, according to Florida, are not confined to the obvious occupations (art, writing, entertainment), but also include life and physical scientists, engineers, mathematicians, architects, educators, social scientists, innovators in information technology -- in short, anyone who uses their creativity to "engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment." Their economic function, he explains, "is to create new ideas, new technology or new creative content." Creative class members are similar in how they favor such values as creativity, individuality, diversity and merit. Together, they amount to 38 million American workers -- a little more than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce.

While engaged in their creative work, participants in Florida's creative class prefer a "no-collar" workplace, with plenty of autonomy to exercise their creative ya-yas and with only "soft control" from their supervisors. Their schedules tend to be erratic. They'd rather experience whitewater and sheer rock walls than sit in a corporate stadium and play the passive spectator.

Florida distinguishes "creative professionals" (those in law, business, finance, health care, sales management, amounting to approximately 15 million American workers, or about 12 percent of the total workforce) from his "Super-Creative Core" (who "work directly in creative activity"); together they comprise 30 percent of American workers. In contrast, the working class, steadily on the decline, represents about one-fourth of all employees. While we hear much about the rise of the service economy -- and while that group is the largest of Florida's three groups, at 55 million and 43 percent of the total workforce -- he still maintains that service workers (nurses, cooks and waiters, janitors, security officers, administrative support, social services, low-end sales) will not chart the nation's path quite so influentially as his cherished creative types. ("Those in the Working Class and the Service Class are primarily paid to execute according to plan," he explains.)

Forecasting the economic potential of 270 metro areas, Florida promotes the central role of his 3Ts: technology, talent and tolerance. In order to let the economic good times roll, he maintains, communities don't need to recruit more companies or try to become the next Silicon Valley: "The bottom line is that cities need a people climate even more than they need a business climate." As evidence, one of the chapters in The Rise of the Creative Class recounts the tale of the machine shop and the hair salon. Florida asked his public policy students this question: "If you had just two career choices open to you, where would you work -- in a machine shop, with high pay and a job for life, or in a hair salon, with less pay and where you were subject to the whims of the economy?"

The hook, of course, is that people overwhelmingly choose the hair salon: more stimulating, more flexible, more interesting, more creative. People who crave their creativity also value "thick labor markets," "experiential lifestyles," diversity of all kinds and neighborhoods that feel "authentic." They tend to identify themselves with the quality of life in a particular place, and not with a particular corporation: "Hi, I'm Mikayla, and I'm a mountain-biker from Missoula." And they are starting to drive our society.

Bohemian infrastructure 101

Bohemians on the Palouse? Maybe at Lindaman's or Huckleberry's. (Well, actually, those folks are more like a blend of the bohemian and the bourgeois -- or what David Brooks calls "the Bobos.") But wait -- Spokane does have some creative resources, its haunts of the unconventional, its thousand (hundred? dozen?) points of civic light.

Casting Florida's ideas around among a smattering of my nominees for Spokane's creative class, I discovered some consensus about what our town has to offer. In talking to representatives of the arts, the media, business and the regional promotion machine, what emerged was agreement that we have a shot at attracting a critical mass of creative folks for several reasons: the region's outdoor beauty and recreational opportunities; the relative liveliness of downtown and selected neighborhoods; the existing arts infrastructure; a modicum of tolerance; and the influence of living, breathing bohemians.

Right here in River City? Tim Williams, a controller at Agilent who advises the cellular phone-testing branch on investment strategy, insists that unconventional types are accepted even at a workplace spun off from Hewlett-Packard: "Yes, definitely! We encourage diversity -- because if you can work with others, different kinds of people, that's a real asset," he remarks. "We have engineers from Scotland, from China, and from a wide variety of places in the U.S."

Karen Mobley, who heads the Spokane Arts Commission, can even cite specific artsy types. "You mean, is Spokane wacky-friendly? I know people who thrive around here. There's Charlie Schmidt -- do you know Charlie Schmidt? He's a graphic artist and a performance artist whose big nose is on all those casino ads. And I think of Kendall Feeney -- she's a good example of someone who has done interesting and creative things."

As the owner for the past nine years of Boo Radley's, the local gold standard when it comes to creative-funky-whacked-out-way-cool gift stuff, Andy Dinnison can attest to Spokane's core attractions for creative individuals. "With River Park Square, we've grown up retail-wise, so we're up to speed there," he avers. "A lot comes down to housing and jobs. We've got all the beautiful and outdoorsy stuff, and the middle-income housing downtown seems to be in the works."

Holli Hornlien moved to Spokane from Chicago a bit more than a year ago. Having acted in or directed three of Interplayers' seven shows last season (she's directing next month's season-opener as well), she's well connected with whatever Spokane has to offer in the way of a Super-Creative Core. Her recent Chicago experiences provide some perspective on Spokane's level of creativity.

Hornlien notes first of all that actors, when they come to town for their seven-week stints in Interplayers' productions, "always remark on the beauty of the place." Florida talks about how creative people crave some kind of artistic "scene" in the places they're drawn to. Having come from Chicago, does Hornlien notice an artsy scene or any special neighborhoods? "The lower South Hill, of course," she says. "I'm just now starting to explore downtown -- you know, I walk past a little coffee bar or a restaurant that I didn't know was there before, or I go into Auntie's, that bookstore, and suddenly I realize, this place rocks!"

Mobley, the arts commissioner, ticks off the usual Spokane credits -- the Met, the Fox, the Opera House, "and a pretty wonderful park that we have there downtown" -- concluding that we have "some of the infrastructure stuff there already. People don't understand how many people work in the arts around here. It has more than $21 million in direct economic impact annually. If they did realize that, the institutions that are responsible for supporting economic development -- I don't want to be too critical, but they'd see that the potential for growth is really huge. But it's not going to come 5,000 employees at a time. It's going to be in individual, small companies -- I mean ballet and theater companies, not Agilents." Still, says Mobley, "I've been here five years, and when I see how much positive movement has been made -- well, I just think this continues to be a happenin' place."

As a longtime art professor at Whitworth College, Gordon Wilson has a good perspective on how the Spokane arts scene has grown. "Little galleries will come and go, but, for example, we didn't use to have the Jundt. And Lorinda Knight is a real professional gallery" of the kind Spokane had not seen before its arrival, he says. "The Spokane Arts Commission really does a lot to support culture in Spokane: It was a great idea to connect the Art Walk with Live After 5. And the Spokane Arts School has grown -- they have a real gallery now. The Chase Gallery is a good public space. There are actually a lot of remarkably good artists in this area."

Mark Turner of the Spokane Economic Development Council views the problem of attracting more creative talent to the area from a business -- and not strictly arts -- perspective. He acknowledges that recruiting companies to the area can be difficult, but claims that "we have success on the lifestyle front." As for the companies he has wooed, "I wouldn't call them bohemians, exactly," he says. "They're small software concerns, or family-owned, closely held companies. But it's not just the outdoors [that attracts them]. They may have [such desirables as] education, livability, family activities. We have mild weather, and, obviously, lots of recreational opportunities. So, no, we don't do any targeting of purple-haired folks," he laughs. "But we find that young folks, if they can earn a living here, can do quite well. More and more, they are choosing to live downtown."

Yet isn't that circularity part of the problem? How exactly can we merge creativity and prosperity? There are a lot of creative people in Spokane who aren't necessarily making a solid living. Airam Gessner, a graphic artist in his mid-twenties who owns and operates Magnum Opus Graphics, knows a lot of young artists "who may stay here, but generally they're not working in an artistic profession." Along with Mobley, he urges artists to be proactive, to market themselves: "There's opportunity here, but you really have to dig for it. This idea that it's just a hobby -- no."

Steel Town / Lilac City

As a regional economic developer, Turner wishes he could land more high-tech companies. Yet perhaps different strategies are needed. After all, Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, in a speech to the nation's governors, corroborated Florida's thesis when she told them, "Keep your tax incentives and your highway interchanges; we will go where the highly skilled people are."

Turner acknowledges that "technology companies are typically hard to recruit, because they want to see a high concentration of highly skilled engineering types." Going where the highly skilled people are: It's practically right out of Florida's playbook. The way to kickstart a regional economy is to achieve a critical mass of talented people.

In a concluding chapter, Florida cites some civic successes in accommodating the creative class (Austin, Texas; Dublin, Ireland), then proceeds to analyze the middling prospects of his adopted hometown, Pittsburgh. In several respects, remarkably, the mixed report on Pennsylvania's second, cross-state city parallels the outlook for Seattle's little sister here on our side of Washington State.

Florida writes of Pittsburgh's decline: "The root of the problem is not simply economic, nor is it linked to the community's image as an aging Rust Belt city. The problem is fundamentally one of culture and attitudes. Pittsburgh people lovingly say the city is slow to follow national trends, or as the mayor often jokingly says: 'Why do you want to be in Pittsburgh when the world ends? Because Pittsburgh is always 10 years behind everywhere else.' " I've heard the same joke about Spokane.

Florida continues, deriding the neighborhood around his university as "a student ghetto" -- "cheesy bars and hot dog joints, old houses with sofas on the porch roofs, free cockroaches," is how his city quiz sums it up. The Gonzaga-Logan neighborhood provides a comparable example. "Is there hope for Pittsburgh?" Florida concludes, in terms reminiscent of Spokane's own. "Of course there is," he assures us, citing local universities, and an emerging high-tech sector as bright spots, despite the fact that "deep social divides remain."

The point of all this paralleling of Pittsburgh and Spokane? Florida regards the former, much larger city as his "base case." If Pittsburgh, "with all its assets and emerging human creativity" (Pittsburgh occupies a middling position among other major cities according to Florida's own statistical measures for creative class potential) "somehow can't make it in the Creative Age, I fear the future does not bode well for other older industrial communities and established cities." The future seems to offer a similar mix, both bleak and hopeful, for Spokane.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

We've surely made our share of mistakes. Chris Kelly, who directs the Entrepreneurs Forum of the Great Northwest, is well positioned to survey Spokane's investment and venture capital past and do some evaluating. In general, he's disappointed by the lack of risk-taking by Spokane's regional boosters and venture capitalists.

As far as corporate recruiting goes, claims Kelly, "There's a way we could do better. There was this company called Rock Shox -- they make shock absorbers for mountain bikes, practically invented the technology -- and their president was from Spokane, and a few years back they were trying to decide whether to move their business to Spokane, Boise or Colorado Springs. Now, of all three cities, we have the best access to good mountain biking by far. So our economic development people here gave them a tour of industrial sites, not realizing that the Rock Shox people were interested in lifestyle matters. I mean, these engineers didn't give a damn about tax incentives and the like. They were just interested in the coolest place to represent their product. Now, what could've happened is, you take 10 mountain bikes down there by the SRBC [Spokane Regional Business Center], and you say, 'Let's go mountain biking' -- along the falls, along the Centennial Trail. What we have to do is present that kind of lifestyle, show them that, 'Hey, here we are right downtown, and you can still get on your bike and have a great experience, and it's all right

here!' "

Kelly is ready with another example of a missed opportunity in Spokane: "Then there's Bo Cooke of Screaming Mouse. He had a great idea, great technology, but basically he couldn't get funded here locally. Screaming Mouse had developed this technology that would allow even a 28.8 modem to download information off the Net at acceptable speeds. Now, Bo had a goatee, a tan, funky glasses and just great charisma. He got people all around here all excited. But here, he couldn't get the financial support -- because around here in Spokane, they don't invest in what they don't understand. It's true that he also didn't get any money down in Silicon Valley, but that's because they wanted him to move his business down there."

You get the sense that Kelly has several similar stories up his sleeve, but he's willing to sum up: "Clearly we have a bunch of scrappy competitors here who can do things with almost nothing that take other well-funded startups substantially more to do. The problem is that our scrappy competitors have no way to raise the funds they need to raise."

Overall, says Kelly, "we kind of revel in our mediocrity, as if we can't change our situation." Yet clearly he thinks we can. Fortunately, Florida's end-of-book statistics suggest that we're simply not the kind of city that needs to put out the lifeboats and paddle away in dejection. Not yet.

We're Better than Eugene!

In Florida's Creativity Index (a composite measuring amounts of high-tech productivity, patents taken out, numbers of foreign-born, members of the creative class and so on), Spokane ranks 21st out of 63 medium-sized cities, and 97th out of 268 metro areas in all. That doesn't sound subpar to me.

Moreover, in his 1999 evaluations of the share of creative, working and service-class employees in 63 medium-size cities (250,000-500,000 in population), Spokane came in 13th for percentage of creative types, at 30 percent. To put it another way, roughly 54,000 of the Spokane metro area's 177,000 workers are members of the creative class. This three-of-every-10 proportion places Spokane ahead of Santa Barbara and Eugene (19th and 27th), but behind Boise and Provo (3rd and 5th). We also rank 54th overall out of all 268 metro areas, with the range going from 38 percent creative (Washington, D.C.) down to 14 percent creative (Enid, Okla.). In addition, nearly 20,000 people in Spokane have earned a spot in Florida's "Super-Creative Core" of computer scientists, architects, educators, artists and entertainers.

Why should such a flurry of statistics matter? In the economic development game, we may be selling ourselves short.

Wallowa-ing in ARTISTS

Among the cultural observers I spoke with, there's consensus of a variety of possible improvements: new blood, increased tolerance, a willingness on the part of artists to market their own work, more local graduate schools in the arts, improving the ambience in neighborhoods surrounding our colleges and universities. Kelly ticks off four promotional needs in rapid succession: the outdoors, downtown, our Wild West heritage and our potential to become part of the "Wired West," with all our fiber optic capacity.

Several cited examples of civic endeavors from which Spokane could learn. There's the vibrant downtown of Missoula, and the example of Las Cruces, N.M., which deliberately set about to improve the graduate program in visual art at New Mexico State and then set about developing an art gallery system.

Kelly notes that Fort Collins, Colo., is "similar to Spokane in lots of ways, but they rejected tax incentives." The strategy seems to be, why concentrate on firms that don't really want to come to Fort Collins, anyway? Let's focus instead on companies that do want to be here.

Kelly also notes a recent headline reporting that, of all places, Moose Jaw, Sask., has just turned an old Al Capone hideout for Prohibition liquor into a thriving tourist attraction. If they can promote their Wild West heritage, then so can we.

And then there's Wallowa County, Ore., where creativity and an entrepreneurial spirit have changed the town of Joseph (pop. 1,200) over the past decade. The town's scenic location at the north end of Wallowa Lake, surrounded by the snow-capped Wallowa Mountains, has been an inspirational lure to artists and other creative types for many years. Initially, the newcomers didn't do much to change the resource-based economy of this quiet valley, where the unemployment rates have a history of being among the highest in the state.

But then in the early 1980s, a local entrepreneur who had a vacant industrial space available decided to help out a couple of artist friends by starting a small bronze foundry right in Joseph. Having a local foundry meant that sculptors didn't have to ship their creations out of the area in order to have their works molded and reproduced, and they were more likely to develop long-term relationships with the artisans who did the work.

The presence of a foundry drew more bronze artists to the area, which in turn increased foundry demand. Along came another foundry, and another, followed by businesses to supply wax, clay and other necessary supplies. Now the economic impact of the bronze industry in Wallowa County is easy to see: three major foundries, at least a dozen galleries and a number of spin-off businesses. Seven massive bronze sculptures now hold prominent places along the sidewalks of Main Street, and artists from around the country now ship their work to Joseph's foundries. Artists love living there, and, since the foundry has arrived, nobody wants to move.

Living Up To The Tortoise

Spokane may not seem to have much to learn from artists scattered in the scablands. But Kelly says we may not be as big as we think. "Spokane has a slow and steady economy," he remarks. "It doesn't grow or shrink at a rapid pace. We missed out on the Internet boom -- but then, on the other hand, we also missed out on the Net bust. So now our unemployment rate, which lagged behind Seattle's and Tacoma's when times were good -- now our unemployment doesn't seem so bad." Are we more like the tortoise than the hare, then? "Well, sort of. But the problem is that we're not even fulfilling our potential as a tortoise. No, we're not Seattle or San Francisco. But we're not even trying to be Spokane."

And then Chris Kelly casts his eye to the future. "We do too much pretending around here that nothing ever changes," he laments. "But things do change. Either we control the change, or not -- either way, it's going to happen."

Ann M. Colford contributed to this report.

Spokane River Clean-Up @ Downtown Spokane

Sat., Sept. 26, 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.