When Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, visited Charlotte in 2003, he was treated like a rock star. The audience at his University of North Carolina at Charlotte talk was packed with all the right people as he discussed his theory on how to make cities like Charlotte great.
Florida's now-revered theory that a city can only become a booming metropolis by attracting young hipster 20-something singles, artists and homosexuals with cool entertainment districts and cultural amenities has influenced planning and spending in Charlotte and dozens of other American cities. The hipsters are the innovators, he reasoned, and industry would follow them. Florida believes that courting, much less paying attention to middle class people with kids, should be a thing of the past -- an idea I remember him downplaying in response to an audience question.
At the time I was baffled by the inevitabilities Florida didn't bother to address. Wouldn't those hipsters soon become 30-something middle-class parents? Did he believe that an entire generation of Americans didn't intend to breed? And when they did, wouldn't they want to do it somewhere other than a 750-square foot Uptown condo? How would we appeal to them then? And what would happen to cities that didn't?
Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History is making a career out of answering the questions Florida can't.
It is fine to strive to attract Florida's young creative class, Kotkin says, but cities can't ignore them as a group once they turn into middle-class parents -- or stop trying to attract and appeal to them. Census data shows these families are twice as likely to be in the top 20 percent of income earners and their incomes rise much faster than the national average. (Kotkin also argues that much of Florida's work was based on the housing and demographic patterns of the failed dot-com era.)
And that is exactly the direction in which Charlotte has headed in the last decade or so, as it developed a disdain for all spending and planning outside the center city and the neighborhood districts immediately around it. It's a dangerous trend that in Charlotte has led to the degradation of the three things innovative 30- and 40-somethings value most: lifestyle, good schools and reasonable commutes.
This is why young singles eventually flee Florida's beloved cities like San Francisco, Boston and New York for places like Charlotte as they shed their single status. Kotkin says it's why cities that have embraced the creative class mantra like Baltimore, Newark and Cincinnati are languishing. Even gay couples, Kotkin says, tend to abandon center cities as they age.
In Kotkin's recent Wall Street Journal article, Philadelphia Center City district association president Paul Levy, the city's key booster, talks about how the remarkable transformation of Philly's once sedate center city, which now has a population of 90,000, is not enough.
The flourishing nightlife there hasn't compensated for the continued exodus of jobs, businesses and middle- and working-class families to the region's burgeoning suburbs outside city limits. Despite the much hyped boom, Levy says, Philly has lost population and its share of the region's wealth has declined to 17 percent from 22 percent since 1990. Roughly half its young people depart from the center city by the time they reach their mid-30s.
This is beginning to happen in Charlotte as the percentage of middle-class students declines in our schools while those in surrounding areas boom. Nearby counties and South Carolina are ultimately benefitting from the billions we're investing myopically in culture and entertainment to the near exclusion of all else.
Most of the public probably doesn't realize that annual new business announcement numbers peaked here in 1994, when the county added 1,052 new firms in a single year. That number has steadily and dramatically declined ever since. In 2006, the number of new businesses locating here was at 586.
At the time, UNC-Charlotte economist John Connaughton said that he thinks new businesses are still moving to the area in large numbers, but that -- as in Philadelphia -- they are increasingly locating outside Mecklenburg County.
How do you combat that? Again, affordable housing, reasonable commutes for everyone -- not just the one percent of drivers who use the light rail line -- good schools, excellent parks, low crime and a directing of resources to long-neglected neighborhoods outside favored center city housing corridors.
At a recent city council meeting, some council members were surprised and dismayed to learn that the new tax increment financing system for economic development likely wouldn't be used in the suburban middle ring parts of their districts. That's extremely short-sighted. The county's middle ring is loaded with the affordable housing middle and lower-middle class families are fleeing our county to find. But that middle-ring housing is rotting as crime flourishes, once-strong schools teeter and infrastructure decays.
So far, Kotkin tells me, Charlotte has succeeded because up until recently it hasn't done what Florida suggests. Our economy is booming because Charlotte is a top choice among successful, innovative 20- to 40-something singles and families.
"If you want to sustain the revival you have to deal with the fact that people with six year olds keep moving to the suburbs," Levy says in Kotkin's article. "Empty nesters and singles are not enough."
"Our agenda," Levy concludes, "has to change."