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What's working in cities: CreateHere shows the way

CreateHere now
CreateHere now
The renewal of an urban core usually involves, at some point, a grand, sweeping plan that calls for huge development projects costing millions, or billions, of dollars: a new museum, a mass transit system, a comprehensive waterfront plan.

There's much to recommend this approach, but big-ticket development projects only tell only half the story. As cities realize the importance of attracting and retaining talent, smaller development projects and neighborhood investment are becoming a crucial part of some cities' revitalization efforts.

This is especially true in Chattanooga, Tenn., where an explosion of small-scale projects and investments in recent years have been moving the city toward the next step in its 25-year renaissance. Since 2007, the group behind much of this has been CreateHere, an unconventional nonprofit working to transform the city into a creative hub through various programs aimed at attracting talent and strategically allocating resources. The group's founders, Josh McManus and Helen Johnson, describe CreateHere as a "five-year civic engagement initiative" -- a large-scale experiment in small-scale urban development that focuses on minor projects, micro-investment, and individuals. When the group of activist-doers-builders came to Detroit last fall Model D TV was there.

"We were doing research on how Chattanooga had turned itself around in recent years and the big question was emerging leadership," McManus says. "Generation after generation has left, so our problem was how to retain our best and brightest. It's the creatives who set trends and create places, so we had to go and create real programs."

And they did. In their first year, operating out of a multi-use gallery space in one of the city's most blighted areas, CreateHere launched a program to help local entrepreneurs, a leadership development program, took over an artist relocation incentive program called ArtsMove, and distributed a series of arts grants.

The amounts of money and numbers of recipients were modest, and by some measure they still are, but the idea wasn't to invest millions of dollars in local startups or move hundreds of creative twenty-somethings to the city; it was to invest thousands of dollars and move just a handful of artists -- who would in turn inspire another handful to move, and so on. This was highly selective, targeted development.

The funding for incentives and grants came from a small group of private family foundations, primarily the Lyndhurst Foundation, that have been supporting change and innovation in Chattanooga for decades. McManus was well-positioned to tap into these resources, having spent years at United Way, where he lead organizational development in the Chattanooga office. He was the perfect professional match for Johnson, who worked in arts and non-profit administration in Chattanooga, turning the local 4 Bridges Arts Festival into a nationally-ranked affair.

Both were frustrated with the traditional nonprofit system and wondered whether they were making a difference. A series of events they hosted at warehouses and art galleries featuring local bands and local food began to shape their ideas about how creativity intersects with economic development. Their final event drew 800 people on a Thursday night to a building without heat or air conditioning. They knew they were on to something.

Soon afterward, McManus and Johnson founded CreateHere and immediately turned the nonprofit formula on its head, raising money from institutions and giving it to individuals, instead of the other way around. Since their goal was to keep talented people in Chattanooga and facilitate creativity, they figured that investing in individual artists and entrepreneurs was the most direct approach.

"We try to make it so it's not so damn complicated," McManus says. "The idea of investment in individuals is huge. It works on the creative side and the economic side. If I invest in a person, that person might do a number of things with that investment."

Like start a folk music school. Christie Burns, co-director of the Folk School of Chattanooga, moved to the city in 2007 after completing grad school in Bowling Green, Ky. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do but she knew she wanted to be in downtown Chattanooga, "in the middle of all the action." Burns applied to ArtsMove and received $15,000 to make a down payment on a house and through the program got connected with a bank and a real estate agency to help her find the right house.

The idea behind ArtsMove is to create density, which CreateHere did by expanding the program, offering artists and musicians like Burns a forgivable mortgage if they bought a house in one of five urban neighborhoods around CreateHere's south side studio. In subsequent phases, the program continued expanding to include a much larger area, and instead of forgivable mortgages it began offering reimbursements for moving expenses to artists who moved their homes or studios to the city's urban core. To date, ArtsMove has helped relocate 30 working artists to Chattanooga, representing home sales of nearly $4 million.

The ripple effects of this kind of investment are unpredictable, which is part of the point. Once Burns was settled in her new house, she began to think of ways she could use her artistic skills in the community. Along with Matt Evans, the other co-founder, she hit on the idea of opening a folk music school patterned after Chicago's Old Town School of Folk and the Folk School of St. Louis. During the summer of 2009, Evans took a business planning class offered by CreateHere, applied for a small grant through CreateHere's MakeWork program, and used part of the funds to fly in the Executive Director of the Folk School of St. Louis to teach them how to start a music school.

That fall, Burns and Evans set up a pilot semester of classes. Since they had no space, they went to CreateHere and asked them and the neighboring businesses on the block if they could use their spaces in the evenings. Knowing that Evans and Burns were associated with CreateHere, businesses opened their doors. The classes were a huge success and the next semester the school moved into the building it now occupies, which Burns says will soon be too small.

Other cities have noticed the effect that CreateHere is having on Chattanooga, and are looking for ways to replicate it. Earlier this year, ArtWorks, a non-profit arts organization in Cincinnati interested in creating sustainable employment for artists and storefront revitalization, contacted CreateHere about the possibility of using its SpringBoard business planning course. In March, representatives of ArtWorks traveled to Chattanooga and attended the first annual SpringBoard Showcase and graduate reunion.

Now, CreateHere is providing ArtWorks with SpringBoard licensing, including a package of documents and processes to make the setup simple and allow ArtWorks to customize the curriculum for Cincinnati.

Even before CreateHere was founded, other, larger cities had their eye on Chattanooga's renewal. In 2005, the Pittsburgh Civic Design Coalition sent a group of leaders to Chattanooga to study the city's land use policies and design infrastructure, as well as neighborhood planning, which relied -- and still does, through groups like CreateHere -- on non-profit foundations and public engagement.

McManus and Johnson are adamant that CreateHere's success had a lot to do with tapping into networks and creative energy that was already there, which is why they're confidant that what they've built will continue on even after CreateHere folds. At the end of this year, the organization will voluntarily go "supernova," and cease to exist. This is by design. McManus and Johnson, having been in the nonprofit game long enough to know the dangers of institutional malaise, gave CreateHere a five-year lifespan from the outset to motivate themselves.

The body of work and many of the programs they've created, however, will go on under the supervision of other organizations. They call it supernova in hopes that the end of CreateHere will create "new galaxies" through the 80 fellows that have come out of CreateHere's fellowship program over the past five years.

As for the founders, they're hoping to transfer CreateHere's philosophy to other cities. McManus emphasizes, however, that the ideas and methods are the only thing that he can really offer. "People want to buy CreateHere, or buy us," he says. "But you can't do that. You need a Josh (McManus) or a Helen (Johnson) for that city."

John Davidson is the Executive Editor of Issue Media Group.

Photos courtesy of CreateHere and Folk School of Chattanooga.
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