Today I had the pleasure to hear Eric Tomlinson, president of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. The area, that has a major focus on biotechnology, is undoubtedly a fortuitous replacement for the tobacco industry that we have always been known for. Now, innovation hopes to put us back on the map again.
Interestingly he gave serious attention to a city having a “cool factor” in order to attract the professionals it needs to support an innovation and creative economy. And I believe that. We had no such cool as little as twenty years ago when it was suddenly obvious that we were hemorrhaging young professionals who sought a hipper place to live and start their careers after graduating. Fortunately we made a real go of it, transforming downtown and restoring its nightlife with music clubs, art galleries and cafes.
But as I contemplated–with excitement–this world that arts and innovation now promise, I worried whether the new professionals and industries really understand how this cool factor comes about. Or will we just transform into sparkling glass and steel metropolis with the cool to slowly getting harder to find. In truth, cool doesn’t come from million dollar projects and planned initiatives. It comes from less obvious individuals who have not a grandiose dream, but just a dream. Just folks who want to step out of the rat race–or maybe who were never in the rat race–to just do something they really want to do or love doing. These are artists who don’t mind setting up a studio in a gutted building downtown or starting a music venue in an old garage or a coffee company in an unused warehouse. They want to start *their* record store or bakery or gallery or cinema from scratch–not buy in to a franchise or chain. Their places become cool because they are visited first by their friends, then their friends’ friends–not from TV or billboard ads.
Perhaps it’s just the laws of economics but then the professionals move to the cool city, the downtown thrives and prospers and then rents increase with the demand. Then, are the artists and small entrepreneurs sent packing? They stayed cool because they put their premium on doing what they loved to do rather than trying to hit it rich.
This may be where appreciation from the consumer comes in. The citizens, residents, professionals who love their city need to not lose sight of why that is. Their role is customer loyalty to become that demand and market for those local shops and studios that make their lives special.