How Cool is Columbia?

Truly cool cities don’t need marketing campaigns—just ask the folks in Austin or Boulder.  But what if your city isn’t cool and wants to be?  Michigan is trying to answer this question with its Cool Cities campaign, a statewide initiative to spur economic development by making Michigan, well, cooler. 

What makes a city cool—and how cool is Columbia, Missouri?  An even better question is why are cities across the country focusing so much attention on something that seems completely unrelated to a strong and vital economy?< Michigan surveyed residents and key recruitment targets and came up with a list that mirrors what many experts are calling for, including Richard Florida, author of The Creative Class and researcher into what makes cities thrive in today’s world.  Number one in the catalog of cool? Walkable communities—followed closely by vital downtowns, arts and culture, recreational options, historic preservation, mixed-use developments and tolerance for diversity. 

Hard to argue with great amenities like these—but why are they so important to economic development?

Besides being the backbone of a great community, these amenities all appeal to workers in the new economy—knowledge workers in creative fields who will relocate to cities that provide them with “peak experiences.”  Whether this is intellectual stimulation, outdoor recreation, great culinary experiences or distinctive neighborhoods, the up and coming talent is looking for more than just a job with a good salary.  Even better, they’re willing to pack up and move to a city that can provide them with these peak experiences.

This signals a dramatic shift in how we need to approach economic development.  In the old economy, cities attracted businesses by offering them cheap labor or abundant natural resources.  Incentives became a must as cities competed with each other to attract companies.  Significant global changes have made this a losing battle for many U.S. cities.  In the new economy, the focus shifts to ideas, innovation and technology.  Next-generation cities are attracting educated, talented and creative people by providing them with physical and cultural amenities.  Hit critical mass and companies will locate where the talent base is.

So, how is Columbia doing when it comes to cool?  

We’re certainly on the forefront in many areas.  We have a vital central city with great dining and entertainment options.  We have an extensive park and trail system, with more federal funding on the way.  We’re also fortunate to have a strong knowledge base—not only are we home to three colleges but we’re also working on key projects like the Bond Life Sciences Center and the Mid-Missouri Technology Business Incubator.  Best of all, we score high on one of the most important indicators of cool—authenticity.  As cities across the nation become more generic, the creative class and the knowledge workers will be seeking out cities that have the very authenticity we tend to take for granted.

Could we do more?  Of course.  What we really lack is a bold, coordinated effort among the government, business and non-profit sectors to turn Columbia into a next-generation city—a city that builds its economic base upon creative and talented people and then actively sets out to recruit them.

Creating the type of city that appeals to this talented core of people has other benefits as well.  As we work to improve these types of amenities in Columbia, we’ll be creating the type of city we’d like to live in as well.  Because really, who doesn’t want to be cool?