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Turning up the heat on Granholm's Cool Cities Initiative: How effective will it be?

Sam Butler


On June third 2004, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm announced that 20 Cool Cities pilot projects were each to receive $100,000 and have preferred access to over $100 million in state grants, loans and other assistance programs comprising of a development “resource toolbox.” The cities receiving awards were: Alpena, Bay City, Detroit, Ferndale, Flint, Grand Rapids, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Marquette, Port Huron, Portland, Saginaw, Saugatuck, Sault Ste. Marie, Traverse City, Warren, and Ypsilanti. The cities themselves didn’t win the grants so much as various proposed projects amidst a wealth of applicants. The winning projects run the gamut, ranging from the relocation of a metalworking school and sculpture gallery to the creation of “refrigerated ice plaza and skating rink.”[i]

Granholm’s Cool City Initiative is in response to a frightening trend observed over the last few years in Michigan. Based on information from the 2000 census, leading demographers, such as The University of Michigan’s own William H. Frey, have discovered that Michigan is losing its young educated population in droves. Groaning under the weight of its own economic debt, Michigan has watched its young professionals leave for sun-painted cites in Arizona, Nevada and Texas. Between the years 1995 and 2000, the Detroit/Ann Arbor/ Flint area lost the fourth largest amount of college graduates over the age of 25 among major metropolitan areas in the country.[ii] Although not a new observation, Frey’s 2003 and 2004 reports made the situation seem all the more urgent.

The timing of this “Brain Drain” phenomenon coincides with the latest trend in economic development – being trendy. Most prominently perpetuated by then Carnegie Mellon Professor Richard Florida, this approach to economic development centers on the attraction of the so-called “Creative Class.” The Creative Class consists of young college educated professionals who look for a vibrant quality of life when choosing a place of residence. Florida has several barometers for this vibrancy, one of them being his “tolerance index” which measures the number of homosexuals in a city and its direct relation to how culturally forward the atmosphere is.[iii] What is most intriguing about Florida’s hypothesis is that he implies a backward approach to attracting jobs. In a globalized, post-industrial economy, where firms can locate to any geographic are of their choice, Florida says that firms will go to where their most valuable employees wish to live. If a city attracts these young, creative, culturally starved people, then businesses and jobs will follow; and their creativity will transform into more dynamic and adaptable corporate innovation.

It is exactly this Creative Class that Granholm is almost quixotically seeking with her Cool Cities Initiative. So now over a year since the grants have been distributed, and as the next batch of grants are getting ready to be allocated, it begs the question of how effective are these funds going to be in the future?

The unfortunate name of “cool cities” please for mockery and from the moment Granholm took someone’s poor advice by announcing the program’s inception wearing sunglasses at the Cool Cities Conference, the program has become a punch line on both sides of the political spectrum. “Cool is in the eye of the beholder,” the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s fiscal policy director Michael LaFaive says. “As soon as the Governor encourages something because she says it’s cool, young people are going to think it’s not cool.”[iv] The apparent expert on young mindsets and aficionado of cool, LaFaive misses the purpose of the program by focusing too much on the program’s misnomer.

Despite they hype, it isn’t a grassroots movement, this is an economic development plan, but sadly, the program is stuck in a precarious middle ground. Almost as if a cohesive set of goals can’t be ascertained, the cool cities barometer of success is an odd amalgam of community development, yuppie gentrification and business-friendly policies. In many ways, this program gets criticized for being too different, risking financial integrity in the pursuit of a fad. Yet, it is hindered from making drastic change because its lack of specific goals mires it in the auspices of traditional economic development. The program’s potential for failure lies in this middle ground. It shouldn’t be a statewide economic development; it needs to be a precise, acute procedure, with definite targets.

Although the process may be indistinct, Granholm has identified the purpose of the Initiative, “We in this state do not want to see our young people going to Chicago. We do not want them to go to Boston or San Francisco, but to stay in Michigan and create the jobs of the future.”[v] If the goal of the program is really to build cities that will compete with Chicago and San Francisco, then it seems that Granholm is trying to make the perfect cappuccino with spoiled milk. Cultural magnets are bred in regions and one must ask if Granholm is wasting the funds that are going to cities like Alpena and Sault St. Marie when it is obvious that Michigan’s greatest prospect for fostering a competitive city region is the Detroit area. Granholm must make her innovative program truly innovative by amassing Michigan’s strengths.

The geographic chasm was unconsciously alluded to in the commencing Cool Cites Conference when Richard Florida remarked,

Clearly there is no city with more potential in the nation than the greater Detroit area… it has a waterfront. It has a lakefront… It has a border with Canada… Even better, it has the University of Michigan nearby in Ann Arbor, a thriving music industry with homegrown artists such as Eminem and Kid Rock and a growing number of high-tech businesses…[vi]

In highlighting Michigan’s strengths, Florida’s omission of any other city besides Detroit is telling. Michigan’s best chance for competing with large, more urbane cities is the development of its most urbane center. One wonders if a pedestrian oriented walkway in Alpena is really going to be enough to draw the elusive Creative Class away from Chicago.

Michigan youths are expressing where they want to live and Granholm should listen. In a 2005 Lansing-based survey conducted by EPIC/MRA, “Detroit leads the list of cities or regions where Michigan college graduates want to live, getting 15 percent of the responses.”[vii] Granholm’s Creative Class wants to live in big cities. It would seem the best way to attract such youth would be to foster the development of Michigan’s largest city as opposed to spreading finite funds on projects that promise to have little impact.

Granholm’s diffusing of funds is counterproductive and goes against the Creative Class’s preference towards clustering observed by Richard Florida himself. Clustering has shown to be the best way to not only attract the Creative Class, but to foster innovative and competitive businesses. This is true whether you believe in Robert Putnam’s vision of “social capital,”[viii] or in Richard Florida’s theories.[ix] If subscribing to Flordia’s views, as Granholm seems to, then the Creative Class prefers “semi-autonomous community – where they can quickly plug in, pursue opportunities and build a wide variety of relationships.”[x] This is true in their selection of which coffee houses to patronize as well as in their working habits. This dynamism can only happen if the sector is concentrated. In her book Regional Advantage, Anna Lee Saxenian partly attributes Silicon Valley’s success to similar business practices. Computer engineers were able to benefit from each other’s proximity and employees were able to shift to different companies seamlessly, without having to move their home.[xi] The theories behind the Creative Class show that regional clustering is the reason why they are able to be so creative. Granholm must recognize this if she wants live music in the streets. Otherwise, the Cool Cities Initiative is just the same old song and dance. 

[i] For more information, see

[ii] William H. Frey, “Brain Gains, Brain Drains,” American Demographics June 1, (2004): p. 5.

[iii] See Richard Florida, 2002. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books

[iv] Amy F. Bailey, “Year-old program to make cities cool for some,” Associated Press, 11 August 2005.

[v] Kathy Barks Hoffman, “Cool cities conference aimed at creating jobs,” Associated Press, 11 December 2003.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Tim Martin, “Jobs critical to keeping college graduates in Michigan; MICHIGAN AP CENTERPIECE,” Associated Press, 4 June 2004.

[viii]See Robert Putnam 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[ix] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class.

[x] Ibid., p. 220.

[xi] See AnnaLee Saxenian 1996. Regional Advantage : Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.