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WestConn at a Glance

Hartford Courant op-ed
March 14, 2010

As Connecticut confronts a challenging economic future, it’s imperative that we identify comparative advantages to gain a competitive edge over other states and regions. Manufacturing and services will continue to play a role, but the nurturing of enterprises focusing on the arts and creativity may promise an even higher return on the state’s investment.

Connecticut is especially well positioned to make the development of an economy based on the arts and other creative enterprises such a comparative advantage.

First, our location near New York City, one of the world’s great creative hubs, can not be duplicated by other states. We are close to similar resources and outlook in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This makes it possible to build a creative corridor from New York through New Haven, Hartford and Providence to Boston that would attract people and enterprises focused on the arts and creativity. Economic development theory stresses the importance of such corridors, and this is a unique strength.

No matter how hard you tried, you could not accomplish this in Kansas or in Michigan. As a business school dean in the medium-sized city of Kalamazoo, Mich., I joined an unsuccessful effort to do so. Despite an active arts community, geography limited linkages beyond a relatively confined region. Distances were too great to permit the informal networking, development of specialized expertise and cross fertilization of ideas and activities that a more compact Connecticut creativity corridor could produce. As the histories of Hollywood and Silicon Valley demonstrate, such regular personal interaction is especially important in creative fields.

Second, Connecticut already has a significant population of people the economic development guru Richard Florida would term members of the creative class. He argues that such highly educated, high-income folks attract others like them and so build a creative economy. I know we have clusters of such people — artists, designers, writers, filmmakers, media developers — in New Haven, Litchfield and Fairfield Counties, and in Hartford. No doubt they reside elsewhere in the state as well. This is a comparative advantage that is difficult, if not impossible, to build from scratch. Traditional economic development tools such as tax breaks and infrastructure improvement don’t necessarily attract creative professionals. The presence of kindred spirits, such as those already living here, does.

Third, Connecticut enjoys the presence of institutions of higher education that are already notable for their fine arts programs and that provide hubs for the encouragement of creative activity in their locales. Examples of such creative hubs include the visual and performing arts programs at Yale, at the University of Hartford and at my institution, Western Connecticut State University.

On our campus, the School of Visual and Performing Arts supplies the majority of the state’s music teachers and professionals in theater and the visual arts. It also offers on our campus many public programs in arts — plays, concerts, gallery exhibitions, films, lectures, our annual computer animation festival — that make Danbury a more attractive, vibrant environment. Our local economic development team employs these resources in seeking to attract companies and they tell me it makes a difference. This creative activity also makes the region a hotbed for community-based arts endeavors, from coffeehouse readings to experimental music and summer theater. And because of our comparative advantage in the arts, we have been able to forge productive partnerships with other arts organizations such as the Charles Ives Center and the Connecticut Film Festival.

Danbury and Western’s experience demonstrate how Richard Florida’s creative class can be nurtured in Connecticut. We have an opportunity to develop such an environment statewide. Recently the higher education and employment advancement committee of the General Assembly introduced a bill to create a task force to study how the state might proceed in advancing the development of a creative economy in Connecticut. I applaud that effort to advance this promising notion and encourage others to lend it their support.

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