Using our cool 

Missoula’s economic strategy focuses on creativity

The business of a city, at root, is to increase its tax base, attracting more funds for schools, roads and all the things that make for a desirable quality of life. Until recently, many cities employed an “all things to all people” marketing strategy. Now, however, a new approach is gaining in popularity, in large part due to Richard Florida’s 2002 The Rise of the Creative Class. The book explores how cities manage to attract creative business professionals—people for whom lifestyle and the amenities of place are important factors in choosing where to live.

At a May 28 economic development summit in Billings, state economic leaders gathered to classify Montana into “clusters,” geographic and economic niches ranging from wood products to tourism to creative culture. Missoula will soon begin pushing its self-identification as the latter. To do so, economic development offices in the Garden City will attempt to “brand” Missoula as a “cool” community thriving with creativity, according to Mark Martin, interim director of the Missoula Cultural Council (MCC). A creative cluster roundtable gathered to discuss practical implementation of this strategy at the Missoula Children’s Theatre on Fri., Dec. 12. The roundtable was essentially a who’s who of Missoula’s marketing movers and shakers.

The forum was moderated by the Montana Associated Technology Roundtable’s Russ Fletcher. Fletcher, a Missoulian, says the city’s creative pulse goes well beyond its art galleries and music venues.

“I had a friend visiting in the summer who said, ‘But what can you do here?’” Fletcher recalls. “I said, ‘Well, on Wednesday, we all go out to lunch [at Caras Park]. On Thursday, we go out to dinner. On Friday, we go out to the art galleries and on Saturday we’re going to go to the Farmer’s Market.’”

The pitch apparently sold Fletcher’s friend, and Fletcher thinks it will sell other creative professionals as well, if Missoula can get the word out.

rash bins with the phrase “We love it here” aren’t likely to cut it, so MCC hired a local production company—Whitaker, Mrazek and Quinn—to produce a video singing the praises of Missoula as cultural hot spot. The video features artists and computer professionals extolling the virtues of Missoula as an ideal place to live and work between cut-away shots of citizens dancing at Caras Park and taking in breathtaking landscapes. MCC plans to offer the video to local organizations, from art galleries to the University of Montana, to aid them in attracting capital—both financial and human. Groups can splice their own footage and pitch into the main video template, Martin says, before sending it out to prospective clients, interested businesses or prospective students. Whatever the audience, the video is designed to convey a simple message: Missoula is cool and creative.

Who will come to the “creative cluster Missoula?” If the roundtable serves as an indicator, it will be people like Bozeman musician and Internet business owner Ron Newman—a young entrepreneur with both talent and money.

he cluster concept holds that if a number of people work in the same field in one area, they will be able to pool resources and network for the greater good of all involved—a model currently being exemplified by eight Montana artists, including Monte Dolack, whose work is touring Ireland’s galleries thanks to the efforts of the Montana World Trade Center.

Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas says he’s on board the cluster wagon, and he believes that Missoula is already a creative cluster. “If one doesn’t exist, you can’t make it happen,” Kadas says. In order to make the campaign successful, many in the business community, including Fletcher and Martin, are hoping that Missoula’s artists will engage in an activity for which they aren’t typically known: savvy marketing.

“It’s a left-brain, right-brain thing,” says Arni Fishbaugh of the Montana Arts Council, describing the vast difference between creating culture and marketing it. To bridge that divide, the cluster seeks to get the creators in the same room with the sellers. At the December conference, however, creators seemed vastly underrepresented. In fact, while the roundtable did include a documentary filmmaker, a web designer, two musicians, an artist and an architect, the overwhelming majority were more involved in outreach than in creating art.

“I’d like to see more artists that are respected by other artists here,” Fishbaugh says.

The business types got a taste of what working alongside artists might actually be like when one local artist, who described herself as interested in spreading joy, suggested that at the next roundtable, the group should meet not in a drab conference room, but in her ginger-stocked basement for a “ginger party.” The suggestion was met with some roundtable laughter, though the artist was clearly not joking.

The relatively low number of artists involved raises the question: Are artists interested in aggressively marketing themselves as members of a hearty community, or is the nature of their work so individualized that they simply don’t care?

The answer may prove vital, as copywriter and mobile ad agent Tom Vandel (who goes by the punning alias Les Overhead) argues that the idea of the creative community will not be sold by a slick video so much as by what outsiders encounter firsthand.

“Everybody’s claiming to be a creative center now,” Vandel says, “but you need to show people, not tell them.”

That job will likely require getting more members of the artistic community involved, according to Goatsilk Gallery co-owner Ben Bloch.

“As an artist, I feel lacking in marketing skills,” says Bloch, who was only vaguely aware of the initiative until a reporter called to ask about it. “So I would be interested in some help, but in these situations, you always wonder if it’s genuine. If it’s merely an economic goal, it doesn’t make much sense.”

Bloch says that his gallery is struggling, and that Goatsilk’s future is uncertain. He presents the idea of linking UM marketing students to non-profit galleries such as Goatsilk or Area 5. It’s an interesting idea, and one that Bloch might have presented to the roundtable, had he been invited.

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