USDA study links creative populations to thriving economies

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— The "creative class" is on the rise in Routt County.

According to a study by David A. McGranahan and Timothy R. Wojan of the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, the county is included in a list of 260 rural "creative-class" counties. These counties showed higher rates of patent formation and manufacturing technology adoption in the 1990s, as well as higher rates of job growth from 1990 to 2004.

"The conclusion we came to is that creative occupations appear to be critical in creating employment, new businesses and new products," Wojan said from his Washington office.

Wojan and McGranahan defined the creative class as people in highly creative occupations such as business ownership, top management, science, engineering, architecture, design, arts, entertainment and media. Using U.S. Census data, the study found 29.2 percent of Routt County employees were in the creative class in 2000, up from 21.8 percent in 1990.

Out of more than 3,000 counties nationwide, Routt County's creative class percentage is ranked 164th. But among rural counties, Routt County ranks 19th. Colorado is rich in rural creative-class counties. Routt County is seventh on that list, behind Pitkin, San Miguel, Hinsdale, Eagle, Summit and Ouray counties.

McGranahan and Wojan's study is an adaptation of sociologist and economist Richard Florida's creative-class theory, which focuses on talented people, research and development activity and patents as sources of new economic growth.

Florida developed the theory with major metropolitan areas in mind; McGranahan and Wojan adapted it for rural counties, which tend to lose much of their young talent when high school graduates leave. Attracting young talent, midlife career changers, active retirees and others can maintain the health of these rural economies. And it appears Steamboat has succeeded at doing that.

"The basis of economic development is always on capital," said Steamboat resident Carl Steidtmann, chief economist and director of consumer business for Deloitte, an international accounting firm. "The definition of capital has broadened to include the intellectual capital of individuals."

Steamboat's creative class

Steidtmann said many people are drawn to Steamboat because of its beauty, which fits with the study's finding that the creative class can be found in rural areas with mountains, lakes and other rural amenities. Sandy Evans Hall, executive vice president of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, said Steamboat still risks losing young talent, but often makes up for it by attracting people later in life.

"It's going to attract people of all walks of life who want to live in an attractive place," Evans Hall said. "People want to do business where they can have a wonderful quality of life."

McGranahan and Wojan's research showed that rural counties with large creative classes had a 44 percent increase in jobs from 1990 to 2004, compared to 18 percent job growth in other rural counties.

Intentionally or not, Steamboat appears to be following the strategies to attract the creative class.

Promoting "quality of life amenities is the best way to attract and retain the creative class," Wojan said Thursday.

Evans Hall said this is a primary strategy of the Chamber, which doesn't worry about attracting businesses, choosing instead to focus on visitors who may later decide to relocate here.

"We're not trying to move businesses, but people," Evans Hall said. "We try to make the community great, not hunt businesses."

Randy Rudasics, director of the Small Business Resource Center at Colorado Mountain College, said attracting talented people, rather than businesses, is a good strategy because the cost of living here is so high most businesses would be unwilling to pay the wages required to locate here.

In addition to outdoor recreation opportunities, McGranahan and Wojan's research found that the creative class is attracted to cultural diversity and active street scenes.

"I think it has a lot (of cultural diversity) for a rural county, but could improve," Rudasics said. "There's never enough coolness."

Location neutral

A 2006 study by the Routt County Economic Development Council suggests Routt County's creative class may be largely made up of location-neutral businesses whose owners are located in Routt County but customers are not. Location-neutral employees, like Steidtmann, live in Routt County but work for employers outside of the county.

This group was found to be well-educated, and roughly between the ages of 35 and 54. The study estimated there were 700 households in Routt County where remote working was a primary source of income. The group was estimated to contribute at least $35 million to the local economy.

The quality-of-life amenities that are said to attract the creative class also were said to attract location-neutral businesses and employees, and the location-neutral study estimated 40 percent of Routt County's workforce would be location neutral by 2012.

While the correlations between the creative class and economic growth are strong, Wojan said more research needs to be done before building a creative class is seen as the primary route to economic health.

"Essentially, what we have is a statistical relationship," Wojan said Thursday. "In terms of this being the primary source of growth for rural counties, we wouldn't go that far."

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