Over the past few years, the raging debate in economic development has been over whether cities should be cool or uncool. Should cities pursue “the creative economy” by going after arts, culture, creative research & development, and innovation? Or should they focus on the bread-and-butter economy: hard infrastructure, traditional industries like manufacturing, and blue-collar jobs?
Usually a raging debate is an indication that the wrong question is being asked, and that’s the case here. The question is not whether cities must be cool or uncool in order to prosper. Clearly, there are some cities in each camp that prosper, and some cities in each camp that do not. The question is deeper: In both cool and uncool cities, what is the underlying nature of the economy? Does the city simply import money from other places, or does it export goods and services to other places? Because it is this distinction – not cool or uncool – that serves as the dividing line between prosperity that is real and prosperity that is illusory.
Not long ago, I was interviewing a retired politician in a fast-growing Southern metropolis. Even though he was a good ol' boy who had never left home, he bore no resentment for the retired Yankees who flooded his town. In fact, he attributed the whole area’s prosperity to them. A retirement community, he said, “is like a high-wage factory. You build 1,000 houses, you have 1,000 households making $90,000 a year. A high-wage factory without the factory.”
I grew up in a factory town, and this got me thinking about a factory's huge and multi-faceted contribution to a region’s economy. But is a retirement community really similar?
In some ways the answer is yes — and that’s a good thing. The most obvious similarity, as my politician friend pointed out, is that the residents live in town, get steady paychecks to spend locally, and become involved in local life. Like factory workers, retirees can support a whole service economy with their local spending.
But there’s more to a factory-town economy than simply Saturday grocery shopping by the workers. Factories are in the export business, while retirement communities are in the import business. An export economy spins off all kinds of economic benefits that you don’t get from an import economy. A big factory requires lots of suppliers, and tends to stimulate the creation of an economic cluster — a group of businesses that feed off each other and, in time, find new customers outside the region.
A retirement community creates a cluster of suppliers, too. But this cluster tends to be composed of local service-sector businesses that create low-wage jobs and aren’t interested in repackaging their services for export outside the region — retailers, contractors, landscapers and pool-maintenance companies.
There’s also a psychological difference. Factory workers are connected to the local economy in a way that retirees are not. If orders fall off, they might get laid off for a while, switch jobs and go to work over at a supplier, sometimes for more money, sometimes for less. But the point is that they have a stake in the regional economy. Factory workers don’t like traffic jams anymore than the rest of us, but they see the value of an expanding economy. They see how growth can be good as well as bad.
Retirees see no such thing. They are tied to the global economic system in which their investments are based, or else to the economic fortunes of, say, a government pension system in another part of the country. They might want tax revenue to flow into public coffers in New York or Ohio to protect their public pensions, or they might want interest rates to go up so that their incomes rise.
But they see no benefit in an expanding local economy. If a bunch of factory workers get laid off, the retirees don’t need to worry, in fact, they might actually benefit because local prices might fall. If business is booming and people are employed and labor rates are going up, they don’t have to worry about that, either. They might even be harmed by it, because their incomes are fixed — not tied to the local economy — and prices will go up.
A retirement community is not the only type of place that operates this way. Tourist towns and bedroom suburbs function pretty much the same way. All are in the business of importing money from somewhere else, rather than exporting goods and services. And the recession has shown, once again, how fragile import-based economies are. A few years ago, Las Vegas was the biggest boomtown in America. Today, it’s become crash city, largely because the two-tier economy tied to tourism — a few wealthy casino owners and managers, a vast number of low-paid hotel service workers — couldn’t sustain the huge increase in home prices that occurred during the housing bubble.
There’s nothing new in this distinction between import and export economies. Jane Jacobs laid out the thesis magnificently, almost 30 years ago, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations. But it’s become more relevant in the last couple of years, as the cool v. uncool cities debate has heated up.
The argument that cool cities are involved in fluff, and therefore aren’t creating real economic growth, is based on the perception that cool cities are in the import business. If you build arts centers and sports stadiums and convention centers and subsidize lofts for artists, you’re not really creating any wealth… or so the argument goes. All you’re really doing is drawing people to your city so you can empty their pockets while they are having a good time; the classic import economy.
That’s true sometimes, but not always. At its best, a creative economy is generating innovations that turn into products that get exported elsewhere, whether those innovations are fashion trends or software applications or biotech breakthroughs. And in many cases, a more plodding blue-collar economy requires fluffy arts stuff to create the quality of life that will attract top people. My grandfather left the Cornell faculty to run the research lab of a rope manufacturing company in my hometown in upstate New York, but I’m pretty sure one of the attractions was a symphony orchestra that my grandmother, a concert pianist, could perform with now and then.
Similarly, just because a city is a lunch-bucket town doesn’t mean it’s sending goods and services out into the world and truly creating a lot of wealth. Here again, Las Vegas is a great example. Despite the glitz, Vegas is basically a blue-collar town. It’s job-rich, and workers traditionally didn’t need a lot of education or a high skill level to succeed, they just needed drive. Yet, by and large, the jobs created in Vegas aren’t very good. They’re relatively low-wage service jobs, and they come and go depending on the economy. Vegas' business leaders are accumulating wealth quickly, and maybe eventually it will become an export economy. But for now, like the retirement community in the South that I mentioned, it depends entirely on importing money.
It’s time to stop talking about whether towns should be cool or uncool. What really matters is what they are producing. If all they’re producing is some kind of experience that induces people to come to town and spend money, it doesn’t matter how cool the town is; it’s probably not sustainable economically. If, on the other hand, the city is creating and exporting something the world needs – whether that product is cool or uncool – it’s a good bet that both the city and its people will do pretty well for a long time.
Photo by Stuck in Customs/Trey Ratcliff. Prosperity, or just an illusion? Building 43 at Google.
William Fulton is a principal at Design, Community & Environment (dceplanning.com) and mayor of Ventura, California. This article is adapted from his new book, Romancing the Smokestack: How Cities and States Pursue Prosperity.