In New England, a city revival built on creativity

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Nat May graduated from college, it was not his hometown in southern Maine that beckoned. Instead he left for Asia, with plans to learn Mandarin and become a translator of ancient Chinese texts.

When he returned to the US, Portland was only to be a pit stop, a place to get his bearings before moving to San Francisco or New York City. What he didn't expect to find was his old seaport town showing a vibrant side.

"I was surprised to find that it's actually a good place to live for young people," says Mr. May, the director of SPACE gallery, a contemporary arts venue on a burgeoning arts thoroughfare in downtown Portland. "It's really powerful ... to be connected to the things happening around you."

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While New England was one of the slowest-growing regions in the US in the 1990s, Portland stood out as an exception. The city was the only metropolis in the region to make the list of the 20 top receivers of young, single, college-educated adults from 1995 to 2000.

According to the US census, each of the six New England states lost more young, single, college-educated adults than it gained from 1995 to 2000. But Portland has emerged as a model that can reverse that trend. It has gained recognition for everything from distinctiveness - its working waterfront and converted warehouses - to world-class eateries.

"In many respects Portland can be somewhat of a test study in terms of some of the things we can do in this area," says Daryl Fort, director of community development in Gov. John Baldacci's office. "Other [communities] are poised to do the same."

Indeed, urban planners and politicians throughout the region have been hammering out initiatives - from tax incentives to folk festivals - to help attract young professionals.

And it's a particular type of young worker being wooed: those, like May, who make up the "creative workforce," which can include not only artists but also technology workers, entrepreneurs, and even lawyers.

Increasingly, cities in this region and elsewhere are following the theory that this demographic attracts upscale restaurateurs, organic grocers, theater groups, and galleries. These businesses and organizations then create a quality of life and "vibe" that prompts others to relocate.

"Cities are embracing arts and artists [because they see] a creative environment as a cutting edge in the 21st century," says Ann Galligan, a professor in the Department of Cooperative Education at Northeastern University in Boston. She says cities can no longer depend on a single factory or company for municipal success. "A city has to rethink how it attracts and maintains workers ... without alienating its traditional [working-class] base."

From Portland to Pawtucket, R.I., cities have embraced this model.

Dr. Galligan was hired by Pawtucket, which is just north of Providence, to create a long-term plan for its arts district. In 1998 it created tax incentives for artists living within 307 acres in the city center. The area encompassed 23 empty mills, says Herb Weiss, the economic and cultural-affairs officer in the Department of Planning and Redevelopment. He says some 300 artists have moved in since then.

Meanwhile, planners say the city of Burlington, Vt., has become a model in adaptive uses for historical buildings, And in Providence, known for a vibrant creative economy, the mayor recently institutionalized an office of cultural affairs. And back in Maine, Governor Baldacci this month accepted recommendations from a statewide committee to foster "Maine's creative economy," including a focus on creativity in high school and college curricula and an acknowledgment of the role tourism plays in the creative economy.

One Portland convert

Adam Ayan relocated to Portland from Boston for a job as a mastering engineer at Gateway Mastering & DVD. When he first came to the city about six years ago as a recent college graduate, he says most of the young people in town were either college students or lifers. It was hard to meet people, he says. "It's much busier than when I first moved here," he says. That includes more specialty stores and restaurants, as well as more diversity in the population. "I see a lot more transplants.... This is a cool little city."

That is not cause for complacency, though, says Lee Urban, director of the city's Planning and Development Department. Six months ago he started a task force to brainstorm ways to foster the city's creative economy. Among Portland's plans are a music festival next fall and continued efforts to create affordable studio and living space for artists, and to foster ties between the private and public sectors.

The outmigration of young people in parts of New England is in large part tied to high housing prices in the region and job opportunities elsewhere. In the Northeast, like parts of California, some price appreciations have far outstripped income growth, says Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"All [New England states] are losing their young and restless population," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He notes that Massachusetts has seen dramatic outmigration since 2000. Meanwhile Sun Belt cities like Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., have boomed.

Others say that perhaps the deep Puritan heritage permeating much of New England is another reason so many youth have left.

"New England has to get a little more funky," says Robert Leaver, CEO of New Commons, an organizational consulting group in Providence working on the city's creative economy initiatives.

The notion of the "creative class" emerged in 2002 when Prof. Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh said tolerance, talent, and technology were the keys to a city's progress. His definition of the "creative class" has been dismissed by some academics, says Galligan, but urban planners in many small cities - especially in university towns facing "brain drain" when recent graduates leave - have jumped on the theory.

The downside

But not everyone is dubbing these efforts a success. Housing prices have soared in many towns, traffic has become more congested, and the character is different.

"Everything's changing," said Celia Ostrowski, a senior in Portland who was taking a walk across from the old Porteous department store, now the home of Maine College of Art. She loves the vibrancy of the young community, but she also worries about paying her rent. "I don't know what's going to happen to us."

This so-called "SoHo effect" - when old-timers are pushed out and prices skyrocket so much that not even artists can afford to live in the community - has been addressed by many city leaders.

Mr. Weiss says Pawtucket has been careful to attract residents who will make a commitment to the community and be able to afford their work spaces and homes.

"We want [newcomers] to be long-term residents of the community," he says.

Jennifer Hutchins, a graduate student at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, helped research the report and recommendations that the governor accepted this fall. They found that in 2002, Maine's creative economy - if defined as arts, culture, and technology - employed 10 percent of the workforce.

"One of the goals of the report was to provide a model by which other rural states could apply what we found," she says.

Still, others have been wary of the very notion that creativity will be able to turn a town's economic tide, says Mr. Leaver of Providence. "A lot of people still believe that Providence's future is in services or financial services," he says.

He disagrees. He says the days of economic buoyancy by way of a big bank relocating to town are over.

And for as much as Puritan traditions may have clamped down eccentricity in some pockets, he draws on the spirit of "pulling yourself up by the bootstraps" in growing Providence's creative class. These days, municipal success is a matter of "growing your own," he says, "and strengthening what you've got."

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