Transcript – Episode 60

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Ben Forman: If you look at residential property values the more arts you’ve got going on in the community, the higher those values are. We can directly tie that to the arts activity and if you’re a mayor of a small city, that’s really vital. Because you don’t get your value necessarily from your downtown, but you get it from the surrounding neighborhoods.

Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Ben Forman. He is director of Gateway Cities Innovation Institute at MassINC. And welcome to our program.

Ben Forman: Oh, thanks, Anita. It’s great to be with you.

Anita Walker: So, I’m going to just start with asking a basic question: What are gateway cities?

Ben Forman: Gateway cities are the regional cities all around our Commonwealth that really are places where our cultural institutions sit. They’ve been vital to regional growth and economic development for generations, I think. Many of us, our grandparents, probably got their start in a Gateway City or, if not in the city, in a community surrounding them. So, whether it’s New Bedford or Worcester or Pittsfield or Springfield or Lawrence or Lowell, they have an older industrial legacy, but they continue to be vital places with regional hospitals, state universities– again, the cultural institutions. And, so, for ten years or so now we’ve really focused our effort on thinking about how we continue to make sure that these places are vital and vibrant, because they really are sort of that economic engine to a lot of communities around our state.

Anita Walker: And they’re sort of home base. They’re sort of the centerpiece of particular regions as you said. One of the things that we like at the Mass Cultural Council is that you really have seen a way to harness arts and culture as a driver of a revitalization.

Ben Forman: Yeah, I don’t know if it was really intentional and maybe the artist brought it to us. I don’t know. We’ve been thinking about creative place-making for a while, but as we’ve learned more about it and see more of it I think we found not only is it a kind of primary economic and community development strategy, but it actually is often the very first place to start. You know, if I were elected mayor of some–

Anita Walker: Pittsfield!

Ben Forman: –Pittsfield or any Gateway City and I’m thinking about where I’d build from, I think the arts would be kind of my first place.

Anita Walker: I mention Pittsfield, because you mentioned, “If I were elected mayor–” Mayor Roberto, a few mayors ago, was elected mayor of Pittsfield on the platform of revitalizing the downtown through arts and culture and one of the first projects being other revitalization of the Colonial Theatre and then attracting Barrington Stage and this was years ago at a time when it could easily have been seen as sort of a frivolous idea.

Ben Forman: Yeah, and for us all our work goes back to Mayor Roberto. The Gateway Cities at MassINC work was started by John Schneider who grew up in Pittsfield and had a real connection to it, and when he put it together as a research project, that’s how it began before it became more of the kind of movement as we think of it today. It was just a paper that we as a non-profit think tank put out to talk about how vital these places are. And Mayor Roberto kind of chaired the advisory committee for that project. So, we were working with it. Maybe that’s why we got into arts-space economic development early on, because he was doing it there in Pittsfield and actually because the endowments of arts and culture in that region. But the reason why I say it is the primary economic development strategy and the right starting point is because the first thing you need to do as a leader is get your community to believe that your city is special and has a bright future ahead of it. And Mayor Roberto felt like his residents weren’t believing. And that’s true of older industrial cities all around the country. In fact, there’s sociologists have written about this complex: people internalizing economic change and feeling like it was their failure as a community. Whereas that’s obviously not true. All across the country, every city that’s an older industrial city has really had a difficult stretch for several decades. So, it’s not the fault of the people in those communities, but it is up to them to figure a way out and a path forward and you need to do that collaboratively and you need to do it with some sort of positive vision and there’s nobody like artists to get that conversation going and that’s what Mayor Roberto did in Pittsfield over ten years ago. I think he– to some degree it was an uphill battle for him, because people were saying, “This isn’t real economic development. Where’s my job in a plant?” You know, something in a coffee shop not going to do– or an art gallery. But Mayor Roberto said you had to have patience and we have to start somewhere and build from our threads. And, so, that’s what he did and he overcame. And if you look at Pittsfield now, you can’t doubt that that was the right approach, because while the city still has some very real challenges, it’s not kind of being torn apart at the seams. People are working together, they’re not rejecting the outsiders, a lot of new people, new blood, that have come to the city. I think they’re really thinking about, okay, we’ve got to start through the arts, it’s revitalized our Main Street and our historic buildings, and how do we build from there and celebrate this great strength that we have?

Anita Walker: You know, I love the fact that you talk about the need for sort of hope and confidence and optimism as really sort of the first step in any revitalization of the community. If the people don’t believe, don’t really see a future for themselves there, they’re not going to be able to make a future for themselves there. And you’re also right about the arts. So, as you know, Mass Cultural Council certifies cultural districts. We now have 43 state-certified cultural districts just created in the past five years and what these really are communities that have stepped up, come forward, and said, “You know, we want to focus on what’s real, and special, and authentic about our place. We don’t want to become Boston or Portland, Oregon. There’s something really important here that means something to us and how do we build and capitalize on that?” And it’s really sort of the essence of creative place-making.

Ben Forman: Yeah, and I think as a mayor you have to think about where you’re going to get your arts energy from and I think a lot of mayors look to their downtowns for that. But I think what’s most interesting is that it comes back to the city through their residential property. We’ve seen that actually from, I think, research that you’ve supported is that if you look at residential property values the more arts you’ve got going on in the community, the higher those values are and we can directly tie that to the arts activity. And if you’re a mayor of a small city that’s really vital to you, because you don’t get your value necessarily from your downtown, but you get it from the surrounding neighborhoods, but there’s more to tax in the surrounding neighborhoods if you have a lot of vitality on your Main Street. That becomes a real amenity and an asset to the community. That builds property values up so that you can pay for services and make your community a great place for families to live. And it’s really a little bit different from our major cities like Boston, most of the value overwhelmingly comes from where we are right now, Downtown Boston, in that commercial–

Anita Walker: High rises and businesses. Right.

Ben Forman: So, you know, obviously they get some value, too, out of having the park here and their employees being able to walk out there for lunch or something like that, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as the kind of residential value that you can get from the kinds of cultural districts you guys are building all around the state and I think municipal leaders really need to take stock of that when they think about the kinds of really, really modest public investments we make in this districts and the outside return that comes from that. You know, it’s not easy for everybody to see that direct connection, but it’s true that it’s there.

Anita Walker: What do you think– so, the notion of creative economy, creative place-making, you know, we’ve been talking about it for at least ten years, fifteen years probably. Ever since the Richard Florida told us about the rise of the creative class and how communities large and small, rural and urban could think about the creative economy as a driver. So, now here we are ten- fifteen years later, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges moving this kind of an agenda forward, especially in struggling communities?

Ben Forman: Yeah, well, then you get to a whole other level of economic impact, right? And I focused more on the first, the community-neighborhood sort of piece and quality of life and participation in the arts. I’m less of an expert on the creative economy and I can’t follow Richard Florida in his mind. It spins all around.

Anita Walker: He’s kind of come full circle on the last ten years, but he did name it–

Ben Forman: Yeah.

Anita Walker: –and kind of give it some cache.

Ben Forman: And, to me, it seems intuitive that that’s what we do in this country, especially in this Commonwealth, is we create things and we don’t necessarily make things. And, so, there’s another sort of strong argument for being a creative place that’s going to attract creative people to innovate, right? And, obviously, we can kind of capture that and see that growth. My particular kind of interest in that area would be, okay, where is the balance where that can happen? Is that going to be in Cambridge? Or is it going to be in Worcester? That’s the kind of way I’ve been thinking about it. We certainly have seen a lot of creative people that have spent time in Boston and San Francisco and New York returning to their roots in Gateway Cities, and being entrepreneurial with creative businesses. I’m not sure I’d call it a trend quite yet, but I think that’s kind of where we gotta be in building a strategy, is, okay, we are starting to see that flow: How do we really tap that and make it so that people are looking at– whether they’re looking at a Brooklyn versus a Worcester theater district, they’re seeing the positives to both and we get more of those people choosing Worcester.

Anita Walker: I was– speaking of communities that are reinventing themselves. So, North Adams, I was out there recently and talking to the mayor– of course, a great enthusiast and evangelist for the future of North Adams, but one of the things that he was telling me about that when young people move back to North Adams are, first of all, affordability. You can literally get a house for $50,000, which is mindboggling when you think of living in Boston or any place in greater Boston. But, secondly, there’s a sort of an attitude in young people that they don’t want to move to a place that’s done already. They want to feel like they have some sort of participation in shaping the city. Something that’s still a little gritty, something that still has work to be done as opposed to a shiny all-finished thing.

Ben Forman: That, I think, we definitely are seeing as sort of a trend. I mean, there are urban pioneers, for lack of a better term. For those folks, people that are drawn to challenges, right? And the work in the Bostons of the world is done to a degree. Not that our major cities don’t have challenges, but there’s plenty of hands to tackle the work that’s left to do and really figuring out a place like Springfield or figuring out a Holyoke. It’s going to take a special person do to that. And we’re seeing them– people signing up for that job and I think that is a promising time.

Anita Walker: And an exciting future for a lot of Gateway Cities. Ben Forman, who is the director of Gateway Cities Innovation Institute at MassINC, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.