Friday, September 19, 2003

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Rural responses to lost manufacturing

Last month I talked about how the outsourcing phenomenon was affecting rural communities in particular, and how this would affect the 2004 election. What I did not talk about was how rural communities could respond to the secular decline in manufacturing jobs.

Last Sunday the Hartford Courant ran a story about how a rural area near and dear to my heart -- the northwest corner of massachusetts -- has dealt and is dealing with this phenomenon. The answer appears to be mass infusions of contemprary art:

Cities across the country that lost heavy manufacturing are discovering the arts as a tool for revival. In Connecticut, Hartford and Norwich, among others, have promoted artist housing; New Haven sponsors a major international arts festival. But few cities have made as big or as bold a bet on the arts as North Adams.

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, or MASS MoCA, opened four years ago in a complex of two dozen 19th-century factory buildings - not dissimilar to Hartford's Coltsville - that occupy almost a third of the small city's downtown.

Part of the sell was that it would breathe life into the other two-thirds and drive local economic development. It's still early. Progress has come in fits and starts and is still fragile. But, yes, the signs are good....

Arts tourism by itself isn't the ultimate goal. The hope is that it will attract "knowledge industries" to replace some of the jobs that went elsewhere.

And they've gotten a couple of these. Storey Publishing LLC, a division of Workman Publishing Co., and Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co., which specializes in computer-generated animation and visual effects, are both tenants in the MASS MoCA complex....

Artists are small business operators, and Rudd figures each new mill building that's renovated for artists brings about $1 million into the local economy. "If a few more buildings are done," he said, "it will make this a very interesting town.

Read the whole thing -- and thanks to Official Blogmom Esther Drezner for the link.

From this story, it's possible to carry Virginia Postrel's argument in The Substance of Style farther than she may intend for it to travel. It's already been argued that the cities that have the cultural endowments to attract a "creative class" do the best in terms of economic vitality. It's logical to believe that this could apply to rural communities as well. In the 21st century, aesthetics will play as crucial a role in determining national, regional or local competitiveness as proximity to raw materials played in the 19th century.

posted by Dan on 09.19.03 at 06:02 PM


Having just written a Master's thesis about local economic development on Northwestern Massachusetts I feel like this is one topic I am qualified to comment on.

The area in question is (finally) doing a good job adjusting to economic change. There has been a lot of pain in North Adams in particular, but it is finally starting to turn around. MassMoCA is one part of that story, but there are other things going on in the area as well that are helping in the economic change.

I think the key to successful change is the ability to form connections to other areas. In the past (Fordist if you would like) economic regime a large corporation could be relied upon to support a local area. That regime broke down for a variety of reasons, and in its place we have an economy where outsourcing is more common, work is more flexible, and connections are more important to the success of a local area.

MassMoCA is one example of the new connections that are being created in the area. The existence of Williams College in the area is another incredibly rich source of connections to the broader economy. Through its active and successful alumni base Williams is able to bring both people and money into the area to be spent on building projects and other cultural events (including the construction of a new performance art centre that will be utilized by the Williamstown Theater Festival). Williams also brings with it a well-educated faculty, many with well-educated spouses who need jobs.

Connections are also being formed by the presence of a Venture Capital business in the area and the start-up of several successful Internet related businesses. While not the major engine for jobs in the area it is still a growing part of the local economy.

All of these elements work together to create an environment that is more competitive with other local economies. The presence of MassMoCA and contemporary artists, Williams College and its faculty, Venture Capitalists and entrepreneurs form an environment that is appealing to a growing segment of knowledge workers.

As best I can tell from my reading of the Creative Class argument there is no causality determined in the link between cultural industries (and the bohemian index) and economic productivity. I would speculate though that the link is that more creative, bohemian locations attract intelligent labor which is also more productive.

The Northwest corner of Massachusetts is becoming a differentiated competitor in the quest to attract highly skilled workers. It is not an environment which is going to appeal to everyone, but it is starting to appeal to some people, and enough people to get something started in that otherwise sleepy, isolated corner of the world.

But I would definitely caution that the approach that works in one location is not a turnkey solution for all areas. Each local economy has to determine their own advantages and the best way of creating new or deepening existing connections to the global or national economy. This often depends on the hard work and initiative of local people, and a government program cannot make it happen.

posted by: Rich on 09.19.03 at 06:02 PM [permalink]

Your point about aesthetics overlooks one of the most important aesthetics for people looking to move into an area -- the environment.

Look at places like Bend, Oregon, or any number of communities in Idaho, Montana or Wyoming. As they move away from extractive, environmentally descructive industries like mining and logging, they are able to attract people who want to live in a beautiful area, but can work through a computer and phones and don't have to be located near a big city. This brings money into the area, which supports a service economony infrastructure (not just store clerks, but lawyers, doctors, nurses, etc). Efforts to preserve natural beauty are not job killers -- as most republicans seem to think -- but will be keys to successful job creation for a lot of rural areas over the next 50 years. You don't need to be in NY to work on Wall Street anymore, and that trend will continue. Rural areas have a chance to lure the best and the brightest as never before, if they don't blow it.

posted by: pj on 09.19.03 at 06:02 PM [permalink]

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