EDITORIAL: Guess what, we’re ‘creative’

HEAR THAT SOUND? It’s Buzz. Think we live in a rural, upstate county? Uh unh. We’re in the hipsters’ crosshairs. Columbia County matters to those who care about cultural trends. We’re a part of the “creative economy.”

Used to be that as far as a regional identity this county was an afterthought–the poor relative on the northern outskirts of the Mid-Hudson Region and its connections to the metropolis and not much more welcome to the Capital District family to the north. My, how things change. Columbia County is featured prominently among the eight counties in the Capital Region in a new report called “Captivate: The Capital Region’s Creative Economy.”

This creative economy, broadly defined in the report, includes not only artists, arts organizations and the other usual suspects, like architects, interior designers, and art, dance, drama and music teachers. It also counts librarians, “public relations specialists” and–can you believe it–editors?! Altogether this industry accounts for nearly 24,000 jobs in the region.

And this county is no cultural stepchild. We rank third in the nation in terms of the concentration of workers the report describes as independent artists. The only two places with higher concentrations are Taos, NM, and… Brooklyn (Kings County).

These creative folks account for more than 2,100 jobs in the county, which is more than 6% of the total county workforce. And while that may not sound like a lot, it’s almost twice as large as the figure for the region as a whole. Some larger institutions might squirm at the very thought, but our county is the leading edge of this trend.

The report was produced by a consulting firm hired by a group called the Regional Alliance for the Creative Alliance. It contains “an action agenda” that its backers say will “provide a blueprint for the public, private, and nonprofit sectors as well as for individual artists, creative freelancers, and residents as they collectively seek to leverage the region’s creative assets to stimulate economic growth.” That sounds like the propaganda for happy Chinese factory workers in the 1950s.

Despite the consultant-speak, the report is more than a well intentioned attempt to restate the obvious. For instance, the section on “challenges to address” has headings like: Regional Fragmentation (“… few [creative people] feel a cohesive part of the eight-county region”); Limited Public Transportation and Broadband Infrastructure; and a problem that all newspapers face–Generation Silos (“In many ways, there are two creative economies in the Capital Region, one that involves the millennials and one that involves the rest of the community”). The consultants make it clear that the problems we face Columbia in County are shared region-wide.

The actions recommended remain general and necessarily vague. It’s hard to demand more from a 20-page document with pictures. And if it gets creative people talking creatively across county and geographic lines, then that’s an excellent start. The report also reminds everyone that the Capital Region, fragmented though it is, can hold its own as an emerging cultural hub. It isn’t a tiny, lifeless planet orbiting New York City.

But Columbia County faces a situation different from that of our neighbors to the north and west. Far more than any of the other counties in the Capital Region, we find ourselves caught between New York City and the capital. To get a sense why, consider ridership on Amtrak for the passenger line’s 2014 fiscal year. It turns out Hudson, with 187,776 passengers, was the third busiest Amtrak station in the whole state after New York City’s Penn Station and Albany-Rensselaer. Add to that the Taconic State Parkway traffic carrying commuters, tourists and second-home owners between the county and the metropolitan area and it becomes easier to see why the county hasn’t embraced a Capital Region identity.

Trendiness fades quickly, and the hippest of hipsters will soon discover someplace cooler than Hudson. But we’ll endure. New creative folks will homestead here, enriching our creative economy. Reports don’t convince people to make decisions like that. Affordable housing, good schools, clean air and water, access to health care and a feeling of belonging, are the essential ingredients for that type of growth.

Trying to define creativity as a commodity or an industry overlooks the fact that the conditions for creativity often are an accident of time and place. There’s nothing wrong with local creative folks collectively organizing to “to leverage the region’s creative assets to stimulate economic growth” but it might make more sense to leverage the region’s economic growth to stimulate our creative assets.







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