IN 2004, urban studies professor Richard Florida visited Oklahoma as a featured speaker at the Leadership Education and Arts Development conference. Citing research from his 2002 book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” Florida argued that U.S. Census data showed economically successful cities embrace immigrants, gays and artistic people he called “bohemians.”
Florida said creative people choose a city or region where they want to live and then target their job search there. For Oklahoma City to grow, he urged local officials, “Go out and ask gay people and lesbians and new immigrants and Native Americans. Go out and ask them what they want.” The audience gave Florida two standing ovations. One attendee said Florida's speech “identified some of the reasons a lot of the things Oklahoma holds dear are not going to help attract young people here.”
At the 2005 Leadership Education and Arts Development conference, locals heard from Michigan officials who ran that state's Cool Cities initiative based on Florida's findings. Florida's argument gained much national attention, particularly from political liberals, since his findings aligned economics with their social stances. In practice, however, his theories haven't worked as advertised. Oklahoma City is exhibit A.
While Oklahoma City has changed in recent years, it has hardly adopted the social attitudes of San Francisco or Seattle. And at the state level, policymakers have focused on measures such as tax cuts and minimal regulation — the old economic model Florida sought to replace. The results speak for themselves:
Oklahoma City's unemployment rate was 4.1 percent in April, lowest among large cities. New Census Bureau data show Oklahoma was one of just five states that became “younger” between 2011 and 2012. The state's median age in 2012 was 36.2, compared with 37.5 nationally.
In comparison, Joel Kotkin recently noted in The Daily Beast that several Rust Belt cities embracing Florida's theories continue to struggle. Michigan's Cool Cities initiative included subsidizing the arts in Detroit. Kotkin dryly notes, “It didn't exactly work.” Indeed. Detroit has been placed under an emergency financial manager and faces bankruptcy.
In comparison, “the fastest job growth has taken place in regions — Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Omaha — whose economies are based not on ‘creative' industries but on less fashionable pursuits such as oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing,” Kotkin says. Oklahoma City may not be known as a “cool” place, but it is known as a thriving one where people can actually get a job. This appeals to workers of all ages and backgrounds.
As Oklahoma's economy has improved, officials have focused on improving cultural attractions and local quality of life. Census numbers show the state is becoming more diverse. But this isn't a chicken-or-egg debate. The “creative class” may come to Oklahoma because of economic opportunity, but economic opportunity is not arriving in Oklahoma because of targeting the creative class.
Census numbers show that North Dakota experienced the largest decline in the average age of citizens last year. That state, like Oklahoma, has benefitted from the shale revolution in oil and gas, and is now attracting thousands of oil-field workers.
Oklahoma and North Dakota's economic growth and appeal to younger workers have been generated not by appearing “cool” to childless adults, but by attracting workers, including young families with children, the old-fashioned way: job creation.