Mark DesJardin could live and work anywhere.
Fueled by a creative streak and an entrepreneurial drive, by 2011 he had founded two successful web-based businesses. The first was the daily deal site Groucher.com, followed by GroupRide, a web-based portal designed to boost the sport of cycling by linking group rides across the region and the country.
Always on the lookout for new opportunities, DesJardin took a serious look a few years ago at relocating to an area with greater population density and greater access to venture capital to meet his entrepreneurial interests. He was also looking for a creative environment in which to work and play.
In the end, he chose Appleton.
“I like it here,” DesJardin says. “I can live the kind of lifestyle I want to here.”
Living that lifestyle was an important factor in his decision.
DesJardin is part of an emerging demographic economists, planners, demographers and academics refer to as the creative class, the vanguard of the emerging creative economy. Nationally, the creative class makes up one-third of the U.S. workforce, collects half of all wages and accounts for 70 percent of discretionary spending, according to the Creative Class Group, an international next-generation research and advisory group.
The future vitality of Northeast Wisconsin depends on attracting and retaining this group and its economic power, say those involved in workforce development. That means creating a unique sense of place, fostering greater acceptance of talent with diverse backgrounds, encouraging greater civic engagement and enhancing the entrepreneurial atmosphere — all without losing the region’s current strengths, such as its safe, family-friendly heritage and affordable lifestyle.
“If you create an amazing place, people will want to come to it,” says Adrienne Palm, director of leadership for the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, responsible for Pulse, the young professionals group, and Cultivate, an annual conference seeking to build the creative economy.
“If you are doing interesting and creative things, everyone benefits.”
This begs the question, “Are we doing enough to attract and retain the best talent to keep the economy and lifestyle vibrant here?”
Wisconsin demographic trends show the 25- to 44-age group will decline 8.3 percent in Wisconsin by 2025. While the population centers in the New North fare better than the state as a whole, Outagamie County, for example, will see slight declines in segments of this important demographic group by 2040, according to U.S. Census data.
As a group, members of the creative class aspire to be entrepreneurial and will often create their own jobs or companies rather than work for a business they don’t believe values their contribution, says Cheryl Perkins, founder and president of Innovationedge, a Neenah-based, global consulting firm that advises Fortune 50 clients and others on innovation and growth. Where and how they live is generally more important to them than working for a particular company, she adds.
Arts, culture, demographic diversity and civic engagement are also key factors for them. Without those elements of attraction, they will look elsewhere.
“I just love the outdoor lifestyle and the music scene is really starting to heat up,” DesJardin says, explaining why he stayed. “I’ve been able to find a like-minded community and there is a startup culture here that might be small, but it is active.”
DesJardin and his wife, Beth, put down roots. She owns and operates Trove Photography and he has taken on a new role as the sales and marketing coordinator for C3 Corporation, where he is encouraged to use his entrepreneurial skills and instincts to build new business opportunities for the Appleton-based manufacturer of automated packaging and other industry equipment.
Now, he knows he can be a difference maker.
The creative landscape
Just what makes up the creative economy depends a lot on who you ask. Its definitions vary from one tied strictly to arts and culture to a broader definition that includes creating companies and jobs. The key word in all of them? “Creative.”
Richard Florida, who coined the term more than a decade ago in his book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” takes a broad view. In a 2012 interview with “U.S. News,” Florida says it includes any job that has a creative element, from artists to engineers to craft brewers to hair stylists.
He cites research showing two critical skill sets: cognitive skills coupled with social skills — the brain power to create and the ability to manage in an entrepreneurial setting. He estimates the creative class nationwide at about 40 million.
Creating a cool space
Jennifer Stephany favors a broader definition, noting that a creative economy almost always has a strong arts and cultural movement that draws the creative class.
“People need to feel they are part of a place,” says Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown, Inc. and a member of the Arts Wisconsin board of directors.
The core for Appleton is its downtown, where the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center and Building for the Arts are the center of a series of concentric circles, much like ripples on a pond, radiating outward.
“We are the arts-and-cultural center of the community,” Stephany says. (She was proud to identify as one of the “zealous nuts” that urban planner Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces said a community needs to champion the creative economy during his talk at Insight’s 2014 InDevelopment conference.)
In Appleton and Green Bay — the population centers of Northeast Wisconsin — the triggers sparking the fledgling creative economy are both tied to place making.
In Appleton, with a population of more than 72,500, it was the construction of the PAC. For Green Bay, with a population surpassing 104,000, it was the creation of the City Deck that sparked a renewal in both the downtown and the emerging Broadway District.
“It created a cool place to be,” says Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay, Inc.
It also touched off a wave of changes. With more people downtown, there was a rediscovery of the riverfront, he says. That resulted in a surge of new downtown residential and office developments. Six of the seven new office complexes are 100 percent full and new residential developments are running at 95 percent occupancy, Mirkes says.
“Certainly, some of it is empty nesters, but a lot of it is that creative class of young professionals,” Mirkes says.
While Green Bay is larger than Appleton, the two share similar demographics. Green Bay skews a few years younger — a median age of 34 compared with 36 for Appleton — and both have experienced a growing ethnic and racial diversity since 2000, according to U.S Census Bureau data.
Green Bay, of course, has one asset that’s hard for other communities to replicate: the Green Bay Packers, one of 32 NFL franchises, which gives the city unique exposure.
“We get national commentators saying, ‘If you haven’t been to Green Bay, you need to make a visit,’” Mirkes says.
The Packers aside, Mirkes says there is no magic formula for a community to jump-start the process of attracting the creative class. It’s about promoting the assets already in place, then working to improve areas that are deficient.
Take Duluth, Minn., for example. Often cited for an up-and-coming creative economy, the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community report found the city’s attraction is based on its aesthetics (its outdoor beauty, parks and trails are hard to beat), its welcoming attitude toward young professional talent and its improving nightlife. Some of the challenges include attractiveness to young families and the availability of cultural activities.
Not bad for a city with some of the most brutal winters in the U.S.
Making a good impression
To keep the economy in Northeast Wisconsin vibrant for years to come, the region will need to actively improve upon what matters to millennials, Perkins says.
“I’ve been seeing this now for several years as I work with companies around the country,” Perkins says. “This is an opportunity for Northeast Wisconsin to make itself a destination.”
Ongoing demographic shifts lend urgency to the need for the region to hasten the discussion, she says. Young creative professionals today begin by choosing a place they want to live, then looking for work or creating their own job when they get there.
If you are under 28, you are more likely to choose a community first, then find a job, says Brian Johnson, who manages the young professionals group Current for the Greater Green Bay Chamber.
Communities that have actively worked to attract this group have seen positive results. The Center for Creative Economy examined efforts to foster the creative economy in North Carolina and found that creative industries boast faster job growth than other sectors of the economy and slower job losses when things slow down.
For example, in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina (an area bounded by Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point), the creative economy supports 30,000 creative jobs. It saw an 11 percent job growth in creative industries between 2003 and 2008 and watched its earnings grow from $1 billion a year to $2.97 billion.
“We need people to see (Northeast Wisconsin) as an economic hub,” Perkins says. “We are a best-kept secret and we need to start raising awareness of where and what we are. It’s time to expand the reach.”
The job trends Perkins mentions are backed by a survey done for Current, which looked at perceptions and attitudes toward the Green Bay area by young professionals in the city. The results were then compared with that age group nationwide.
Conducted by Next Generation Consulting, a Madison-based market research firm specializing in next-generation companies and communities, the survey — still considered relevant by those who commissioned it — looked at the group’s attitudes toward the community and the assets it values.
The values that scored the highest were:
• Cost of lifestyle, as “a community where I can live, work and play.”
• Earning, defined as “a broad choice of places to work and an environment friendly to entrepreneurs.”
• Vitality, or “a vibrant community where people are ‘out and about,’ using public parks, trails, recreation areas and living in a healthy community.”
Those three values, ranked as important 98, 97 and 94 percent of the time, respectively.
Those values also rank highly in the companion global survey, scoring in the same order of importance.
For Johnson, it’s an important message that lifestyle issues will play a greater role in attracting and retaining talent.
“Quality of life and community are the most important factors for young professionals,” Johnson says in a video explaining Current. “We have to give them a reason to stay.”
Drawing them in
Those results are certainly not lost on Palm.
As the director of Pulse Young Professionals Network, one of Palm’s primary function is to support young professionals in the region, helping them develop the business skills and social ties that will keep them in Northeast Wisconsin.
Having lived in Indiana, Philadelphia, San Diego and Phoenix, Palm says there are a lot of great reasons for creative workers to choose Northeast Wisconsin. When deciding to relocate, people often cite good schools, low crime rate, affordable housing — but one big draw is the ability to make a difference in their community.
That’s something easier to do in Appleton or Green Bay than in a large metropolis such as Chicago, New York or Los Angeles.
“I stay here because I feel I can make an impact here that I maybe couldn’t someplace larger,” Palm says. “I can see the results immediately.”
In November, Palm and Johnson organized a joint session of the young professionals groups from both chambers, expanding opportunities for connections that may keep talent in the region.
A similar desire drew Anjali Seefeldt back to her hometown.
An Appleton native, Seefeldt could have easily been a poster child for the brain drain many smaller communities cite as a threat to growth and development. Seefeldt’s pursuit of a master’s degree in psychology took her to Chicago, where she remained for several years before departing for San Diego to pursue her professional ambitions.
Last year, though, she decided to return to Northeast Wisconsin. While she was an active member in Roteract, the young professionals group of Rotary, both in Chicago and San Diego, she had a sense she didn’t really have a voice.
“One of my ideas has always been to develop programs that bridge the gap between Rotary and the young professionals in Roteract and Rotary,” Seefeldt says. “But those cities are so big, it was hard to develop the personal relationships.”
In Appleton, those relationships are a lot easier to cultivate, she says, which helps create a feeling of contribution and accomplishment that members of the creative class are looking for.
“People want to be part of positive change,” she says. “There is potential for young people to really make a positive change here.”
Making it happen
When it comes to making a change in the community, Nathan Litt’s philosophy is closely aligned with an old Nike marketing campaign: Just do it.
Litt, a project coordinator for Willems Marketing & Events, is also the operations manager for Mile of Music, a celebration of artisan music each August in Appleton that has become a hallmark event, drawing musicians, artists, fans and rave reviews from around the country.
While Mile of Music was the brainchild of musician Cory Chisel and Dave Willems, it was Litt who translated the idea into action. As he tells the story, if he had done it the way he was supposed to — followed all the rules and regulations required by the city — he would still be working on the first one, not planning for year three.
“We just couldn’t afford to wait, so we just committed, then went to the city and the other regulators,” Litt says.
Some might chalk it up to inexperience, but government regulation is often cited as a hindrance to nurturing a creative economy.
It’s time to change the dynamic, says Steven Pedigo, director of research for the Creative Class Group, a consulting firm founded by Richard Florida.
“Government permitting can be an impediment,” he says. “We have to make them realize it’s a benefit to do it more efficiently.”
He cites cities such as Boston and Portland, Ore., which have created one-stop permitting operations that have greatly reduced time and paperwork.
Hurdles to overcome
Some of the challenges seem incidental or trivial but are critical to creating the sense of place that members of the creative class want.
When Stephany added chairs to Houdini Plaza during the Dr. Seuss event at the museum, the city wanted to remove them right after the event. Stephany wanted to keep them in place to encourage people to gather.
Other challenges seem to put cities and county government at odds with the artisans and creators who will power the future economy.
Take mobile food trucks, for example. While those trucks have become a staple of the summer months, the process of getting them on the street took several months of wrangling with government agencies. It’s a slow, methodical process that runs counter to the quickness and agility with which the creative class moves.
It doesn’t have to be this way, Stephany and other downtown champions say. They see it as a cultural clash that needs to be overcome.
“(Government) sees itself as a regulator that either permits or denies,” Stephany says. “What we need is more vibrancy, more of a partnership.”
City and county governments will have a role in the creative economy, she says, creating the needed infrastructure to support it.
Indeed, both government and private-sector leadership helped spark Green Bay’s resurgence, Mirkes says. The city undertook needed infrastructure projects. Private companies such as Schreiber Foods and Associated Bank invested millions to create the downtown business space. “Without that leadership, maybe things don’t happen,” he says.
Litt suggests it’s time for government to see itself a collaborator in the process, rather than an enforcer of regulation. “They are so used to looking at things in a pro-forma way,” Litt says.
“We don’t need it to be the Wild West. It just needs to be more of a partnership.”
Building blocks in place
There is no denying that Northeast Wisconsin already has many of the things in place to build its creative economy.
In addition to the housing, safety and cost-of-living attributes, recent transplants have noted the lifestyle and welcoming attitude as positives.
“One of the first things that struck us was how nice people were,” says Dr. Wayne Bentham, a psychiatrist recruited to Affinity Behavioral Health from the University of Washington earlier this year.
Bentham’s credentials would allow him to go just about anywhere. After spending time in Appleton during a recruiting visit, he was sold.
“It matches a lifestyle choice we were looking for. It was safe, affordable and had the morals that we were looking for to raise a family,” he says.
Of course, he gave the region a bit of a litmus test before agreeing to the interviews and tours.
“I did ask them, ‘Are you comfortable with gay, biracial families?’” Bentham says. “It’s a question meant to explode and they handled it really well.”
Indeed, the recruiters at Affinity were quick to explain both the political and practical situations in Wisconsin as a whole and the region in particular. Bentham and his husband had positive experiences during the recruiting visit and, since locating to Appleton, have already purchased horses and began house hunting.
“We are really encouraged with what we have experienced so far,” Bentham says. “People are really engaged in this community.”
Engagement is a common theme among the creative workers who choose to remain in, relocate to or return to Northeast Wisconsin. They want to make a difference both in the workplace and the community, and are typically champions of economic and social diversity.
That engagement also makes them readily voice their opinions about what else the community needs to increase its attractiveness and further develop a creative economy.
Some are universal, such as a vibrant night life, places to exchange ideas, high-speed wireless Internet — but mostly, it is a chance to create.
“It’s so much more than the artists and musicians, it’s the hackers and the makers and so much more,” Litt says (hackers being innovators). “If you create companies that create jobs, then you are part of the creative economy.”