Louisville’s Creative Class

James Clay Smith

Your Voice Contributor

During a recent visit to South Carolina, I was surprised by a headline from The Wall Street Journal ranking the Charleston Metro region as having the country’s highest growth in adults with college degrees in 2011. Knowing that the number one question our economic development folks hear from businesses when they’re being recruited to Louisville is, “do you have a well-educated talent pool?”, I was curious why Charleston was so successful in attracting these well-educated individuals.

Interestingly, the Charleston Regional Development Alliance credits the region’s success in attracting college graduates as directly related to Charleston’s efforts in cultivating and supporting its creative talent. In fact, creative industries represent the fourth largest sector of the Charleston economy. Charleston has recognized the need to invest in its creative community as a key economic growth strategy, and these efforts are producing positive results.

First, let me disclaim that I have no credentials with the creative community other than having married a landscape architect more than a few years ago. The creative class includes anyone who trades in intellectual or creative capital, and whose livelihood is derived from an innovative enterprise. Creatives are graphic artists, gallery owners, restaurateurs, designers, photographers, musicians, writers, architects and inventors. Creatives are innovators. Innovation drives entrepreneurism, and entrepreneurism creates jobs.

A city attracting and retaining creative people challenges the old model of people moving to follow jobs. Quoting Steve Warner of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, “Creative talent goes where creative people want to live – quality of life is the main driver – and business development follows.” Warner shares that there are three T’s of attracting and retaining creative people: technology, tolerance and territorial assets. Creatives demand the technological infrastructure needed to support the high-tech tools of the twenty-first century. They choose to live in communities that are open to diversity, and work actively to cultivate it. And they value the authenticity that can be found in the unique experiences specific to the cultural and physical attributes of the local community.

Much to the chagrin of the old corporate order (with which I closely identify), Creatives don’t care as much about convention centers, downtown malls and casinos. Historical buildings, a vibrant music scene, urban parks, universities and thriving local restaurants are of much greater value. Waterfront Park, NuLu, the Derby Festival, 21c Museum Hotel, the Forecastle Festival, My Morning Jacket and Whiskey Row are all examples of the unique, authentic and local experiences that attract and retain Creatives to Louisville.

Even with austere state and local budgets, it is essential for government to make investments in Louisville’s future. Mayor Fischer’s proposed $500,000 plan for stabilizing Whiskey Row is the type of investment Metro government needs to make to preserve the authentic character of our downtown. I applaud the Whiskey Row investors led by Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown for stepping up once again with their personal resources.

Creative neighborhoods cannot be designed and built from the top down, as has been demonstrated time and again by the failure of faux-urban renewal projects.  NuLu is a great example of a creative community that has evolved from grassroots but needs to be nurtured. The $10 million state-funded streetscape improvement project on East Market is a great opportunity, if it focuses on creating a more pedestrian-oriented area and not just an enhanced thoroughfare for moving commuters in and out of the business district.

And the Louisville business community should hire its local creative talent. I was reminded of this just recently when reading about Louisville based web designer Mission Data, whose  greatest obstacle is convincing Louisville businesses that they don’t have to go out of state in order to get a world-class web presence. We need to celebrate and support our local Creatives.

Charleston’s success is proof that a flourishing creative community will not just attract well-educated adults, but can be a powerful economic development tool. In Louisville we must embrace this strategy, and support the public and private investments required to compete with other progressive urban areas that are pursuing these talented and well-educated individuals. The creative community is what keeps Louisville from becoming Anywhere, USA.

James Clay Smith is the President of Central Bank of Jefferson County.

  • Jae Grady

    As someone who’s been part of Louisville’s creative community for 20 years, I couldn’t agree more. Well said~

  • Dan Galvin

    The enormous creative potential of Louisville can make us the right place at the right time, or that place you fly over, drive by and can’t pronounce. The choice is ours.