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Published: Sunday, 8/10/2003

Falling short in creativity

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Terry Osborn, left, and Myrna Graham at Toledo's Gene Express, where an executive says the city scored higher than she expected. Terry Osborn, left, and Myrna Graham at Toledo's Gene Express, where an executive says the city scored higher than she expected.
HIRES / BLADE Enlarge

The Toledo region could use more creativity if it wants to develop more high technology and the top-paying jobs that accompany it.

The area's tolerance for diversity and innovation are sorely lacking, and the talent of its “creative” work force is at best middle of the road compared with metropolitan areas nationwide, according to a national study.

The study, by Carnegie Mellon University professors and others, found that Toledo ranked just 201st out of 331 metro areas nationwide in an index measuring creativity. The index assessed technology, creative talent, and tolerance in communities because it contends those measures are key to fostering technology industries and workers.

Toledo lagged Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Dayton but surpassed other Ohio metro areas such as Akron and Lima in its creativity index. It was substantially behind Ann Arbor but outperformed Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich., in the study performed by authors in a business called Catalytix.

Kevin Stolarick, a lecturer at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and co-author of the study, said, ``I always ask my students where they're going, and why. I hear a lot of people saying, `I really don't have a job yet, but I want to go to this city.' A job with a particular company is no longer the primary motivator, especially from this creative class.''

The creative class are professionals such as scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects who come up with the lion's share of new technologies and high-tech start-up businesses.

``The creative class is all the people who are being paid to think for a living - there's about 40 million of them,'' Mr. Stolarick said.

That class makes up about 30 percent of the work force nationally but snares about 50 percent of the wages, he said. “These are the people who are paid ... for their intellectual output,'' he added.

Without more development of this area, Toledo will struggle to increase its technology base, which other studies show is lacking and some contend needs to be nurtured for the manufacturing-based region to prosper economically.

A region must have a concentration of creative people and a high degree of diversity or tolerance to attract and retrain creative people, the study maintains.

A co-author of the study, Richard Florida, a Carnegie Mellon professor and head of Catalytix, is scheduled to make a presentation Nov. 14 in Toledo to Mayor Jack Ford's task force on the arts and culture. Mr. Florida spoke in Toledo seven years ago.

Don Jakeway, president of Toledo's Regional Growth Partnership and a former Ohio director of economic development, expressed reservations about parts of the study but said the findings are useful.

``These kinds of evaluations challenge us,” he said. “The challenge is that we shouldn't be afraid of change.''

He maintained the area's talent compares well with that of other areas but conceded the region has trouble retaining creative people. ``Sometimes it is more than the money,'' he said.

Judy McFarland, chief information officer at Thread Inc., a Toledo firm that uses information databases, marketing, and planning to help companies accomplish their business goals, said the study identifies a correlation between culture and clusters of creative people who in turn lead to high-tech growth.

But economic development is more complicated than that, she said. ``As a catalyst, culture is only one factor,'' she said.

Reyn Brown, president of the Durham, N.C., Convention and Visitors Bureau, hired Catalytix to review that area, which posted the fourth-highest score in the nation in the creativity index.

Durham officials had believed that to be “major league” in economic development the community had to have large-city amenities like stadiums, sports arenas, museums, and concert sites.

But Catalytix's research convinced Durham that smaller, home-grown amenities could be just as effective, Mr. Brown said.

Toledo's creativity index score, at 601, was just half that of the nation's leaders, Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, but outdid Detroit. The study was conducted last year.

Elizabeth Herness, assistant director of manufacturing and operations at Gene Express, Inc., a Toledo biotech firm that specializes in cancer detection, said Toledo's creativity score is higher than she expected.

``When I came here six years ago, Toledo was still very industrial-site-minded,'' she said. There was a fear that robots in a new Jeep plant would replace workers, which she said is the whole point of technology.

``I'm hopeful that the mindset is changing, but it's not going to change overnight,'' she said.

In the components of the study, Toledo was ranked No. 168 out of 331 metro areas in the percentage of creative people living in Lucas, Wood, and Fulton counties; No. 183 in growth of high-tech companies and products; No. 254 in innovation or growth of patents; and No. 198 in a composite of Census Bureau information about residents' ethnic backgrounds, number of homosexuals, and people in varied cultural occupations.

Talent in the area is measured through Census data on people in an area employed in specific occupations relating to creativity. High-tech growth is measured by the number of patents granted in a region and year-to-year changes in high-tech output as measured by the amount of software development, electronics, biomedical products, and engineering services.

Innovation is measured through the year-to-year changes in patents over a decade, and diversity is measured through Census data that tracks the foreign-born population, number of same-sex domestic partners, and people in artistic occupations.

Thomas Brady, president of Plastic Technologies Inc. in Springfield Township and a member of Governor Taft's high-technology initiative advisory board, said the general premise of the study has merit.

``It's just a sense, having been to other places, that when you do get creative people around like that, more things tend to happen,'' he said, even though arts and culture aren't typically viewed as economic development vehicles.

However, he said, other factors also come into play, such as tax breaks and a business-friendly atmosphere.

Mr. Stolarick, the study's co-author, said improving a creative index score doesn't take a lot of money.

``What seems to matter is the ability of someone to come to a community and plug into that community right away,'' he said. That can be accomplished with restaurants, the arts, and other social activities, but more important, creative people want to see a community that is diverse and open to new ideas, he explained.

``What you need to be is the best Toledo ever,” Mr. Stolarick said.

Efforts have been made to improve metro Toledo's technology and cultural bases. Leaders have tried to focus attention on bringing and retaining technology industries, even as the growth partnership is about to absorb what had been an independent Regional Technology Alliance whose goals were to promote and develop technology.

Separately, Mayor Ford launched an initiative last year to make Toledo an “elegant city” through a new commitment to the arts.

Cedric Ball, an executive with Owens Corning's composite systems group who is on the mayor's arts task force, said creative people emerging from the nation's cities and universities are different from those who came before.

``Those folks are selecting where they want to go live because of the power and environment of a place,” said Mr. Ball, himself a Chicago transplant. “Then they're saying ... `I will go look for a company I want to work for within that proximity,' which is different than when I came out of school.''

As a result, Fortune 500 firms such as OC have had difficulty attracting talented people. It is difficult to overcome job candidates' perception that cities like Chicago or Denver have more to offer, he said.

So companies may have to pay more to attract talent.

An aspect of the study frequently misunderstood - and where Toledo finished just barely above the bottom third - is diversity.

Although some may wonder what diversity has to do with economic development, Mr. Stolarick said areas surging with new technology start-ups and high-tech jobs scored high in indices measuring tolerance, indicating a direct correlation.

Mr. Stolarick said no research exists showing technology fields have a larger share of homosexuals, but the study authors discovered that creative people viewed tolerance in an area as a signal that companies cared about the quality of the work rather than personal issues.

Amy Whitehead, who has been director of the soon-to-be-defunct Regional Technology Alliance, said the diversity index can be jarring at first to economic development officials.

``The question is: Can someone be a free thinker here, and be comfortable taking more risk?” she said. “In a more conservative, more reserved, more structured community, you can't be a free thinker. And if you're talking about a technology company, it is none of those things.''

Unfortunately, she added, the Toledo area doesn't do well with such tolerance.



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