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In New England, a city revival built on creativity

By Sara B. MillerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 28, 2004


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.

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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."

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."