How the economic crash may reshape us

There's growing consensus this economic downturn is not only longer, deeper and nastier. It's becoming clear this recession may prove transforming, potentially changing us personally, regionally, nationally — even globally — in fundamental ways.

"This Is Not the End of America" is hardly the typically numbing title of Wachovia economist Mark Vitner's regularly published commentary on how things are going. But last week he chose that title because he felt he needed to respond to the extraordinary angst he encounters in his work and life.

"Throughout this financial crisis," Vitner writes, "I have been approached repeatedly by people from all walks of life asking the question, 'Is this the end of America as we know it? Is the American dream dead?' "

No, but the dream may need updating. Once we emerge from this financial firestorm, the Tampa Bay area will have changed. And if it has not, maybe it should.

There's one lesson I'm slowly learning in talking to a lot of folks around here who are a lot smarter than I am and share a passion to help raise the bar: If we just keep doing what we do, we won't even tread water. We'll slip down the rungs of economic opportunity.

When fostering innovation is paramount, we give lip service to better public education and demand draconian cuts to our already tottering state university system. While bandying the phrase "smart growth" for years, we resort to old-school sprawling development then wonder why roads are clogged and so inefficient.

Why bother with such blue-sky stuff when so many of us wait on tenterhooks, wondering if this is my Monday for a pink slip? Because we will rebound. And now is the time to rethink our regional ambitions.

This column's headline is borrowed without apology from a lengthy cover story titled "How the Crash Will Reshape America" appearing in the March issue of the Atlantic magazine. The provocative article was written by Richard Florida. Now there's an easy-to-remember name of an economist who's built an international following by telling cities and countries that the economic future belongs to those who can best attract smart, creative people.

Richard Florida delivered an early version of that message in person to Tampa Bay six years ago. Since then, he's honed his thoughts a lot and applies them well to our current financial predicament and to some old economic stereotypes. Among his most relevant insights:

Stop fixating on owning a home. The burst housing bubble should send a message that home ownership is no longer on the "A list" of the American dream. People wanting to be elsewhere are now stuck in homes they are trying to sell, often at a substantial loss. People are working in jobs they do not like or are beneath them because they are tethered to housing. His message? Don't underestimate the upside of renting. If the feds converted more homes destined for foreclosure to rentals, it could even help the housing crisis and those people about to lose their housing.

• Global regions of Haves and Have-Nots are solidifying. Worldwide, people are crowding into a discrete number of mega-regions, systems of multiple cities and their surrounding suburban rings where the greatest new ideas and productivity are concentrated. In America, for example, those regions include the Boston-New York-Washington corridor, the Charlotte-Atlanta corridor, the Portland-Seattle-Vancouver corridor and — in our case — the Tampa-Orlando-Miami area. Economist Florida says the world's 40 largest mega-regions are home to only 18 percent of the world's population but produce two-thirds of global economic output and nearly nine in 10 new patented innovations.

• Concentrated areas of smart, motivated people will win. The United States and Tampa Bay area economies depend less on simply making and moving things and more on generating and transporting ideas. Places that thrive today are those with the "highest velocity" of ideas, the "highest density" of talented and creative people and the "highest rate" of metabolism. "Velocity and density are not words that many people use when describing the suburbs," Richard Florida says.

A month ago, Curtis Carlson came to town from California, where he is CEO of SRI International, the brainy enterprise now collaborating with USF St. Petersburg on commercializing research ideas. Carlson stood out because of his singular passion: As a country, as a region, we must learn to be truly innovative or we will wither. We can't compete against low-cost countries making widgets, so why try? We can teach innovation in schools, Carlson said. But we don't.

Days after listening to Carlson, I sat down with USF St. Petersburg College of Business dean Geralyn McClure Franklin. She's leaving Florida in a few months to return to Texas and run the business school at the University of Dallas. She spent much of her time here overseeing state-mandated budget cutbacks that forced the business school to swap Ph.D.-level teaching for piecework guest instructors and bloat even the biggest classrooms to legal capacity. Even now, a second wave of ordered cutbacks is under way.

How about it, folks? Do we embrace economic change and raise the bar, or just hit the bar?

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Richard Florida's cover story in the recent Atlantic echos a message he delivered in Tampa Bay six years ago. He's since honed his thoughts and applies them well to our

current predicament.

How the economic crash may reshape us 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 3:31am]

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