Critique of downtown economic development ideology

So I think I’m there on the quality of life arguments that are being made about rebuilding Rupp Arena and setting up a new downtown arts district (concerns about where the $260-300 million is supposed to come from notwithstanding).  However, Fayette Alliance executive director Knox van Nagell’s op-ed in today’s Herald-Leader reminded me that I’m unconvinced by what’s being put forward as the project’s economic raison d’etre:

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Lexington needs jobs.

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And not just any jobs, but high quality jobs that can enrich us and in turn, enliven our community.

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This is important, as more than 80 percent of our city’s revenues come from payroll tax.

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To create jobs, we must create a place that attracts and helps retain the best work force. Where the workers choose to live, is where the companies go and where jobs and city revenues flourish.

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Innovative city building, and leveraging what is unique about Lexington, has the potential to be our most powerful form of economic development.

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As demographer Rebecca Ryan notes: Next generation economic developers know that if you want to attract the talent who will work in your companies, become your civic leaders, donate to your charities, attend your arts and cultural events, you must have more than good jobs. You must have a city — a place, neighborhoods and stroll districts — that captures their sensibilities, matches their values and attracts and engages them.

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Her argument is based on an ideology of creative economic development that I’ll critique below.  But first, let’s establish that this has been the consistent argument of supporters of the New Rupp. Last week, Ann Ross opined:

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[M]ost importantly, [the new Rupp Arena cum arts district is] about jobs.

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In my years on the council, and through my work with the Kentucky Economic Development Cabinet and my training in economic development, I know that the true foundation of successful economic development is first making your city more attractive to businesses, making Lexington a city that attracts good-paying jobs.

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Indeed, back in January, the dean of the UK College of Design wrote:

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In New York, redevelopment of the derelict High Line elevated railway into a new, elevated urban park has transformed the lower west side of Manhattan into an economic engine generating $2 billion in private investment.

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In Miami, developers have even used world-renowned architects to design parking garages. From Seoul, South Korea, where designation as “world design capital” has transformed the city into one of the most spectacular in Asia, to the design-led redevelopment of Syracuse, great design has become not only a quality of life issue, but an economic engine.

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This line of reasoning, which is not unique to Lexington, is inspired by a particularly 21st century brand of free market fantasy-thinking that posits we can overcome the deindustrialization of the American economy by harnessing the energy of creative professionals.  The plan is to encourage these types of people to move to your city.  This line of thinking dictates that good jobs will follow these creative types to your city and presumably this will generate  jobs not just for the creative people themselves, but for us average non-creative schmoes who already live in a given place as well. As Danny Mayer summed it up back in October:

The city and state get to divert public money needed for real public infrastructure projects to attract a small group of “creative” types, a class of economic wizards who apparently circulate the globe on a monster Endless Summer quest for the perfect urban experience.

I obviously don’t buy the theory that meaningful economic development automatically follows the bobo set.  It’s based on ideology, not numbers.  However, let’s pretend a wellspring of jobs does somehow magically follow influxes of creative yuppie hipsters.  If they’re so willful as to be drawn here simply because we built them a new shiny glass stadium, what’s to stop them from uprooting themselves to go somewhere else still more hip in a year or two?  I hear New Orleans and Chattanooga are really happening these days.  We’d end up stuck in a creative professional race to the bottom like we currently are with tax giveaways to our corporate citizens.

All of this isn’t to say that we wouldn’t reap a positive economic benefit from rebuilding a major section of downtown.  At the very least, a lot of that $260-300 million would end up in the pockets of local construction workers who would spend money here etc etc.  Keynesianism ensues.  However, for my money, the Super-Region plan to team up with Louisville and make our region a high end auto-manufacturing hub is a better economic development plan because it’s based on an industry we already have, not on cherry picking other regions’ creative professionals.

I’m not against the Mayor et al.’s plans to rebuild Rupp Arena and redesign downtown.  However, I am against operating under fantastical illusions about the economy.  We deserve better than that.

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