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Are Brainy Burgs Like Burlington Too Smart for Their Own Good?

Local Matters


Published September 27, 2006 at 2:08 p.m.

VERMONT - Government and business leaders have been buzzing about the "creative economy" ever since the 2002 release of Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class. The book promotes banking on the market value of ideas over the manufacture of goods. But a 30-year study of human migration in the U.S. suggests that too much of the right stuff can go wrong - maybe even in Vermont. In "Where the Brains Are," an article in the October 2006 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Florida observes that in "means metros" where highly skilled workers cluster, housing costs rise disproportionately, squeezing out less skilled workers and creating a cycle that can critically alter a region's class character.

Florida, a public-policy professor at George Mason University, doesn't mention Burlington in his Atlantic report, though in an earlier index the city rated first among "most creative metro areas" with populations under 250,000. Like the means metros, Burlington is "beautiful, energizing, and fun to live in," as Florida describes them. It's also awash with college-degree holders - 42 percent of residents 25 years and older, as compared with the national average of 24.4 percent, according to statistics gleaned from Burlington's Community and Economic Development (CEDO) website. The clustering of highly educated people, Florida's article notes, is a boon to economic growth, particularly in a postindustrial economy driven by creativity, intellectual property and high-tech innovation.

The downside: Highly skilled entrepreneurial types have less need to live and work alongside unskilled and moderately skilled workers; those jobs are ripe for outsourcing. And, as highly skilled, highly educated people attract more of the same to a small area, competition in the housing and job markets pinches middle-class workers the hardest. As Florida puts it, "The more smart people, and the denser the connections between them, the faster it all goes."

City officials are aware of the need to promote economic development and attract talented people while not squeezing anyone out in the process. According to Brian Pine, CEDO assistant director of housing and neighborhood revitalization, the effort involves creating livable-wage and "career-ladder" jobs, as well as offering a range of housing options. "We don't focus on just the lowest rung of the ladder," he says. "But we want to make sure that rung of the ladder is sturdy so people can move up."

To give a leg up, creative economy proponents are still invested in nurturing entrepreneurial opportunities that will benefit citizens with various levels of skills and means. They're looking to the state's institutions of higher education to help make that happen. State senator and entrepreneur Hinda Miller points to initiatives such as Champlain College's BYOBiz program and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies at the University of Vermont as tickets to ride into the new economy. "We have the history and the intention of invention," Miller says. "It's very much a part of how we've always created jobs."