So…Surprise! You have a lot of suburban creatives…

Posted by N. David Milder

Introduction. Within the economic development community considerable attention has been focused on young, hip knowledge workers and artists. These young hipsters are part of what Richard Florida has termed the Creative Class. Nationally, they have been drawn in recent years to very dense urban areas that they have helped revitalize, from both residential and business perspectives. It is for these reasons that many economic development organization (EDO) leaders have based their revitalization strategies and business marketing programs on the attraction and growth of these “young creatives.”

However, Florida’s definition of the creative class is in terms of occupations, not age. The occupations Florida uses to define the creative class are from the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC):

  •  Super Creative Core: Computer & mathematical; life, physical & social science; architecture and engineering; education, training and library; arts, design, entertainment, sports, media
  •  Creative Professionals: Management occupations; business & financial operations; legal; healthcare practitioners & techs; high-end sales & sales management


Going unnoticed –as is probably the case in many of our nation’s large metro areas – is the fact that the heavily suburban counties in Northern NJ also have a lot of workers in these creative class occupations. For example, in 2010, Bergen County had 148,150; Middlesex 141,550; Mercer 112,050; Monmouth 86,350; Somerset 74,600 and Morris 103,500 (see table above). Importantly, many creatives also live in these counties: e.g., in 20011 the numbers of resident creatives were: Bergen 196,892, Middlesex 163,910, Mercer 74,541, Monmouth 125,545, Somerset 80,624 and Morris 120,035. As a result of career stages and geographic location, these “suburban creatives” are older, more likely to have families, have higher earnings and higher net worths, and live in single-family homes than the urban hipsters. Moreover, the suburban creatives are equally, if not more, creative and entrepreneurial. Significantly, they do not have to be attracted to these counties — they are already there. They account for a significant part of the healthy and very desirable residential areas in these counties. Also, the downtowns in these counties that have been able to respond to the suburban creatives’ lifestyles and spending patterns have had successful revitalizations: e.g., Englewood, Red Bank, Ridgewood, Westfield, Morristown, etc.

The presence of the creatives means greater job growth. DANTH’s analysis shows that in the 14 Northern NJ counties that Regional Plan Association includes in the NJ-NY-CT Metropolitan Region, there is a correlation of .81 between the number of creatives in a county’s workforce and the number of new jobs projected between 2010 to 2020 by the state’s Dept. of Labor; the correlation between creatives who live in the counties and their job growth was .92. Looking just at the eight heavily suburban counties of Bergen, Passaic, Middlesex, Mercer, Monmouth, Somerset, Morris and Ocean the respective correlations are .84 and .93. In the 14 counties, there is a strong association, .91,  between the number of creatives who live in a county and the number of creatives who are in a county’s workforce.

Economic Strategy and Program Implications. Many EDOs in Northern NJ, be they EDCs, SIDs or municipal or county departments, may want to alter their strategic thinking, marketing and recruitment programs to better leverage their considerable creative manpower assets.

Because economic development in these counties is heavily viewed through retail and office development lenses, one area in which these assets have been minimally leveraged by EDOs is the creation and growth of small businesses operated by creatives. DANTH’s trends analysis suggests that the creatives can be expected to be increasingly entrepreneurial in coming years:

  • Nationally, the workforce is becoming increasingly composed of “contingent” workers, often creative freelancers. One estimate, by Intuit, sees as much as 40% of 2020’s workforce being contingent. Many young creatives have long followed the freelancer path at the beginning of their careers. Older creatives, who are either laid off or seeking career changes, have also followed this path later in their careers. We can expect more of them to do so in the future.
  • Many boomers are changing their careers as they enter the pre-retirement 55-64 age group, which has a high rate of entrepreneurialism compared to other age groups
  • Retired boomers are increasingly starting new careers because they still want to be active and/or they need the income.

The young creatives and their more mature colleagues bring different asset and need sets to starting a business in terms of training, experience, the size and reach of their professional social networks, and their financial resources. Nevertheless, both groups will:

  • Most probably be inexperienced as entrepreneurs and may need to acquire skills in marketing, bookkeeping, business planning, etc.
  • Need to raise capital (mostly new firms with employees)
  • Possibly need to hire employees (the non-freelancers)
  • Need attractive and convenient places to meet and exchange ideas with other new entrepreneurs and potential clients/customers
  • Need commercial spaces for their new businesses (the non-home office operations)
  • Prefer business locations where these needs can be maximized, especially those that are really easy to get to on foot or by car, bus or rail.

The range and depth of these needs will differ mostly not by age, but, as indicated above, between those who are freelancers with no employees and those who are creating firms, usually incorporated, with employees.

Given the relative dispersion in the suburban counties, their stronger downtowns, often their county seats, (e.g., Freehold, Morristown, Somerville, New Brunswick) may be the best geographic locations for meeting these needs. Their existing economic agglomeration offers a density of businesses, government offices, commercial spaces, professional and financial services, restaurants, coffee houses and watering holes in a reasonably walkable area. But, to meet the most pressing needs of the new and budding entrepreneurs, these downtowns may have to develop a more specialized “entrepreneurial infrastructure.” By doing so, the downtown itself becomes a kind of informal incubator/accelerator. Some possible components of such an infrastructure are:

  • A cadre of technical assistance/entrepreneurship advisors available at nearby colleges and universities or at a SBA Small Business Development Center or at local business consulting firms or through organizations such as SCORE. Helpful would be a mechanism to easily link the entrepreneurs to the types of advisors they need
  • Besides commercial banks, SBA, and personal investors, these new and developing companies would benefit from having access to other sources of capital such as angel investors, venture capitalists and crowdfunding. Here again, a mechanism to help link the entrepreneurs to these various types of investors would be helpful
  • Coworker spaces are finding increasing acceptance across the nation. They can be used by freelancers, new companies or small existing companies. They can function as a kind of “business incubator lite” or provide some business acceleration functions for older firms
  • A full blown business incubator and/or a business accelerator
  • A variety of relatively small and affordable spaces for a) freelancers who do not want to work at home or in a coworker space and b) firms that either are too large for or also do not want to be in a coworker space. These spaces can be in the downtown or elsewhere within a reasonable drive of the downtown
  • A mechanism to help link freelancers to project opportunities and where they can get things like health insurance
  • A permissions and approvals process that is truly timely and affordable for new firms be they startups or new move-ins. Most jurisdictions that think they have a good process upon close inspection are shown to need significant improvements.

(Note: this list is not meant to be exhaustive, but suggestive.)

Some of these components or parts of them may already exist in and near the downtown. Others will have to be created whole or in part.

Some pilot organization is needed to:

  • Design the downtown’s entrepreneurial infrastructure in terms of its components. This effort should bring into play the major local government agencies having economic development responsibilities, relevant EDCs and any downtown SIDS/BIDs. Most importantly it also should bring to the table major landlords and experienced businesspeople who live and/or work in the county, especially those who are experienced business investors or well networked with those who are
  • Create an implementation plan that would cover how it would be financed and who would do what
  • Create an organization to manage this infrastructure or designate an existing organization to do so.

Downtown and County Benefits. Some potential benefits of such a program are:
For a downtown:

  • Better business retention through the strengthening of some of its small businesses: helping some survive and others to grow in the downtown.
  • A stronger cadre of freelancers with an increased ability to afford needed downtown goods, services and amenities
  • Significantly more small businesses wanting to locate in the downtown
  • Significantly more small businesses wanting to use the downtown’s goods, services and amenities
  • The development of an image of the downtown as a very business friendly place that is exciting because it is savvy about what small firms need to grow and succeed — and it provides those things
  • The consequent greater attractiveness of the downtown as a business location to other and even larger firms, with associated impacts on commercial rents, the assessed values of commercial buildings, property taxes, jobs, etc.

For its county:

  • A program to help increase the success rate of the county’s growing number of county residents who become new entrepreneurs, be they freelancers or incorporated
  • A program to help more of the county’s existing small businesses to grow, with commensurate job growth and need for additional commercial spaces
  • A program that will spawn new firms with new jobs and a need for additional spaces
  • The ability to develop a business marketing program that puts the “creatives” spin on the county’s skilled workforce and leverages its small business development advantages to attract older and more substantial firms.