(Yes, this is the post I mentioned last time)
The title is not referring to a fear of complexity and change but to a tendency to dismiss them. If you’re a fan of the relatively recent focus in neurobiology, psychology, and sociology, you’re probably aware of the human tendency to seek causes, patterns, and simplified or unifying theories as a means of primal survival. Interesting stuff, and it applies to all of us in varying degrees. There’s definitely value in this tendency, or we wouldn’t have it; but just like most other human traits, each utilitarian tendency comes with a danger. I suppose this might be a funny way to start off writing about local economic opportunities, but there is a connection, at least to me. That connection is in our evaluation or understanding of our options and opportunities here, which is often based on “naturally” narrow conceptions of what “the economy” is, along with conceptions of what works when and where. Our tendency to simplify and find predictable patterns (for primal survival, at the root) often works against the need to consider “new” (although not much is new) or seemingly complicated options. Anyway…
One big thing that truly is new in terms of economic or cultural impact is the Internet and the information it provides. Among other things, it has helped foster a change that was already in the works: more and more people don’t see themselves choosing long term “careers” or vocations. One reason for this is the entrepreneurial spirit that blossomed in the mid-2000’s, and another is the availability of, essentially, training material on the Internet. The training material comes from both institutional/packaged forms and from a more “crowdsourced” version in the infinite forums with experts and other practitioners. Combining this with the Millennials’ tendency to do things differently, and the re-shaping and changing of “the economy”, as a concept, becomes clearer. That’s not to say we won’t still have the conventional elements of factories, construction, entertainment, etc., but that the smaller elements of the economy are likely to be much more fluid than before.
Think of the beer movement and the thousands of new micro/nano breweries that have popped up in the last five years. The same goes for various elements of the food movement, from the “new agrarians” to the thousands of new restaurants and mom-and-pop-produced food products. The cottage industry of repair, gadgets, and technology-based products has also blossomed. The internet provided the technical training/information, business tips, and marketing; and it’s ready to serve the same entrepreneurs and others when a new idea comes to mind. Things are different now whether you’re in a small town or city. To me, the biggest changes are coming to small towns under 25,000, but that’s not the main point of this piece.
The way this relates to the last post is that the break of the sequence of school, more school, life-long career means more temporary vocations and activities, and this is good news for us. I’m not suggesting the old sequence won’t also be followed by many, but that there’s a significant increase in the number of people interested in trying different things out. Sure, there are advantages to landing a job with benefits and a steady salary, but that doesn’t mean everybody (both husband and wife?) are interested in that. For many people, especially couples, a part time job or activity for a spouse is all that’s needed or wanted. The entrepreneurial movement is great for part time jobs –as both owners and employees.
By combining this emerging shift with our public schools’ programs in Work Based Learning, and we have a pretty nice environment for bringing back downtown buildings in terms of repair and use. It’s not a good time to be demolishing inexpensive structures. It might seem like we have a surplus of buildings in many of our small towns, but that is a temporary situation. Ironically, tearing them down removes the charm that attracts interest in development. We lose both the most affordable space ($30-$60/sf in purchase price plus rehab) and the appeal that encourages development. The demand for charming old downtowns has been growing since the 1990’s whether our decision makers are aware of it or not. The idea that “we can make a new building look old” misses two important points: cost per square foot is 2-3 times higher in a new structure (that debt service and principle has to be paid by someone) and the new building is not going to have the same draw, regardless of the assurances otherwise. Neither old buildings that look new nor new buildings that “look old” have lasting appeal, and that appeal is a key element to our economic success. We need a “visible story” as someone recently put it, and the time appears to have come for us to make it visible and to make it work.