Richard Florida has some big fans in Bob Leitch and Nelson Rogers.
The author, professor, urban studies theorist and all-around big-thinker is perhaps best known for coining the term “creative class,” has a fan with Leitch, a business analyst and former Perth businessperson of the year, and Rogers, who has taught at Algonquin College for more than 20 years.
But while Florida, a former teacher at the University of Toronto, tends to focus on urban centres, the duo was keen to take Florida’s ideas and adapt them to what they called the “creative rural economy.”
“It’s a term we’re not fussy about,” said Leitch of Florida’s “creative class,” term, loosely defined as “someone who makes their living by thinking. That is the simplest definition,” said Leitch.
“The people in the creative class, they won’t solve everything,” he added.
During his presentation at a public meeting entitled “Our Resources, Our Future,” which was held in the council chambers at Perth town hall on Wednesday, Nov. 14, he pointed to a Queen’s University study which discovered that between 30 and 40 per cent of the working population makes its living by thinking, something communities, both urban and rural will need to contend with if they want to continue to see their hometowns grow.
The three T’s of economic development, according to Leitch, are Talent, Tolerance and Technology, and a rural area that combines these with the best of country living is well suited to do well.
“People are attracted to smaller centres because of the rural amenities,” said Leitch. “Many people move here for the quality of life.”
However, while retirees are keen to settle in Perth, the town and surrounding areas are seeing outmigration of youth.
“Many of our young people leave and never come back,” said Leitch. “They may have to leave in a major centre because they have to work… There were jobs going wanting here because they could not find young, talented people to fill them.”
However, once some of those young people get married and start having children, then they become more likely to want to return to their more rural roots.
One of his suggestions for attracting or, better yet, keeping youth, in the area is by improving the wages in the service sector.
“If we don’t, we are in a serious way,” said Leitch.
Two rural success stories for Leitch are in nearby Almonte, which is within close commuting distance of Arnprior and Ottawa, as well as Prince Edward County.
“They decided to tackle it,” he said. “They took the economy in the area and recreated it in a creative way,” with small creative industries, not unlike Almonte.
Another shift in how we work stands to benefit the rural economy, with technology enabling more people to work from home. For example, Accenture has only one desk for every eight people who work for them, since most of their employees work from home. This not only helps workers be more flexible with their schedules and where they live, it also benefits business since real estate is the second highest cost after labour.
“We don’t know how many people work from home here,” said Leitch, but he knows that it is already popular with some Perth residents, such as a forensic accountant with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who lives in the area.
“If the mayor of Perth could show you a factory with 200 people, you would be impressed,” said Leitch, gesturing to Mayor John Fenik, in attendance. “(But) I’ll be that there are 200 people plus, plus, working from home here.”
Nelson’s parents were born in what is now a ghost town in rural Saskatchewan, where only the local church is open – and even then only for weddings.
That is something he does not want to see happen in Perth. Nor does he want to see Perth in the same position as some northern Ontario communities, who win grants for community improvement – namely, to demolish decrepit old buildings in their dying cores.
“Perth is in a good place,” said Nelson. “(But) our community is our region. We depend on each other. We are close but not too close to major urban centres.”
While he encouraged communities to “act in collaborative, cooperative ways,” there were some areas that he wanted Perth to be aware of, like “formal education, where we are not doing well,” in terms of high school, college and university graduation rates.
“The high school graduation rate is something we have to get a handle on,” Nelson said, as we enter an age of skilled trades people.
In other areas, though, like architectural conservation and local food, “we are way ahead of a lot of other places.”
On the surface, not looking like a David Usher fan, Nelson nonetheless sung the praises of the singer, as an example of someone who uses innovation to move his music forward.
“We have innovation in spots, but we are not seeing it diffuse into different parts,” said Nelson.
He also noted that the area’s ethnic mix needed to be looked at. While Perth might be welcoming, it’s face was somewhat homogenous.
“We don’t have anything close to aboriginal representation in business,” said Nelson. “How are we going to diversity our knowledge base? Some of this will involve immigration. We need more immigrants. It’s not healthy for a community to be that removed from the world.”
While he noted that Perth was doing well in small business, farming and tourism, he stressed that technology needed to be harnessed in these, and other areas, better, to make Perth “a healthy place to grow and attract work,” but also to bring in new technology to old industries.
“It just doesn’t happen spontaneously,” said Nelson. “It happens intentionally. I’ve never seen a rural community that has 100 per cent of its expertise needs (met). They know their strengths and weaknesses.”