Small Towns, take heed, you too can be a creative mecca

You’ve heard the numbers about the dramatic world-wide domination of the city and its inhabitants.

In 1950, 29% of the world population lived in cities; by 2050, the United Nations projects 66% will be urbanites. The number of megacities, with 10 million or more people, are expected to double in the next 10 to 20 years. And these cities are the economic engines of the world — the top 600 cities, containing a fifth of the world’s population, produce 60% of global GDP, according to McKinsey Global Institute.

The models are very sophisticated, but my amateur urbanist gut wants a different story. It’s been a bit of a chip on my shoulder since I first read Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class and felt hopelessly excluded from that elite group of city-dwellers. The spatial density of cities, Florida argued, drives innovation and the cities that can attract these innovators will be the come-back kids.

But wait. With that rapid urban growth, comes rising insecurity and alarming inequality, as the 2016 UN World Cities Report warned. These dense population centers are hotbeds for disease and easy targets for terrorists. Even Florida, the great proselytizer of cities as creative incubators, changed his tune in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis. In this follow-up to his 2003 classic, he said he was wrong — the creative class’s return to the city did not usher in a new era of prosperity for all, but greater division.

Maybe smaller, denser cities offer a more sustainable model. Thomasville, my little southwest Georgia town of almost 20,000 people, invests in arts and recreation and nurtures business. We are building bike paths and urban green spaces, trying to attract a progressive talent that wants big-city amenities without the urban hassle.

While some of my urban and suburban counterparts spend two precious hours of their day commuting in a steel container, we live in a historically preserved neighborhood that is walkable to schools, world-class food and shopping, and even a Fortune 500 corporate headquarters.

I’ve lived in Houston and Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. I love these cities, but I’m a small town evangelist. There is a quality of life leap you make when you move to an active small town. So stumbling across Julio Gil’s TED talk this summer heartened me. The logistics expert argues socioeconomic trends don’t last forever and technology may make small town the hottest new thing.

I think so. When the City of Thomasville became an early adopter of the city-owned high-speed fiber-optic network concept in 1998, some big-city dwellers took note and started doing big business in this little town.

John Wagner’s family-owned Bayly Hats had been in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro area since 1865. His competition in the custom, American-made hat industry is dotted in similar urban areas — Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, with ready access to labor and tax incentives. But he saw opportunity to gain a competitive pricing advantage by lowering his rent and overhead while maintaining a high-quality workforce. So he moved the operation just over the Florida line, to Thomasville, Ga.

“It wasn’t just lower costs for our business, the cost-of-living is less expensive for our employees. The quality of life is just better.” With less overhead he has invested in automation and the business has grown.

A young, progressive group of townies inspired Renee Moss, co-founder of Farmer’s Daughter Vineyards, to open a tasting room in downtown Thomasville. After working in real estate development in Atlanta, she said the small town offered a comfortable life for her family and an impressive lineage of high-quality food-based businesses.

Fellow townie Bill Arwood was looking for a way out of his high-stress, heavy commute Atlanta life when an old friend proposed they buy a business in South Georgia. Centek Industries was a leading manufacturer of marine exhaust parts. About 80% of their order are custom-made exhaust and muffler systems for the boating world, a niche business that wouldn’t soon face competition from overseas or big corporations. Thomasville would be a homecoming for him and a golden opportunity.

His wife Michele thought him crazy — it’s a cultural void down there, she thought. But she saw some signs of progress and pockets of creative talent doing and desiring big-city stuff. Years later, as Executive Director of the Center for the Arts, she has pushed the bar for arts and culture. She led the charge to establish a downtown Creative District and, with a forward-leaning and well-equipped planning department, inspired the revitalization of a major downtown retail corridor.

Urbanists harp on how density facilitates spontaneous exchanges of big ideas and creative thinking. I don’t disagree. But Athens (Greece, not Georgia) had an estimated 300,000 people. Florence, at the time of the Renaissance, had somewhere between 50 and 100 thousand.

Eric Weiner’s travel guide of creative places, The Geography of Genius, tromps through history to discover what it is about a place that creates genius. No spoilers here, but it ain’t size. (You should probably find out for yourself and order that from Annie, our local bookseller)

Networks, like the Beaufort/Charleston Digital Corridor, are connecting the dots in smaller, more liveable towns and giving even high-tech companies reason to move from the traditional coastal centers of knowledge.

I often long for the opportunities, the experiences, the cultural exchanges of the big city. For my children, especially, I want them to experience the progressive schooling and the ethnic diversity. But there are surprising opportunities in these small meccas. And, as Weiner says, all of these places of genius have had to overcome an inferiority complex to become bastions of creativity. The chip on their shoulder drove them to exceptionality.