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Looking Up

Looking Up
May 2012
Call it a cluster, a corridor, or whatever you want—the creative spirit in Charleston is reshaping our economy and even the contours of the Upper Peninsula  


An eye-popping mural commands a double-take as you mosey up Morrison Drive. Big, bright, and colorful, it perks up an otherwise blah landscape of uninspired commercial buildings, warehouses, and vacant lots—your typical by-the-train-tracks, post-industrial blight. The mural depicts a vibrant green field and cheery red truck overflowing with monstrous squash, immense onions, and a watermelon the size of a water tower, like a promo for a B-grade horror flick. 

Steve, a farmer who could pass as a young law student or banker (sans suit), drives past the jolly green mural and turns into the adjacent lot. He’s delivering a small harvest of early spring vegetables, including fresh pea tendrils, to the GrowFood Carolina warehouse. “Mmmm, wow, chefs will love these,” says Sara Clow, general manager for this nonprofit operation that aggregates and distributes produce from local and regional small-scale farmers, creating a sustainable wholesale market for their produce and reliable local product source for restaurants and retailers.

In some ways, GrowFood’s mural-bedecked warehouse, South Carolina’s first and only local “food hub,” is a microcosm of what’s happening around it. The surrounding two-to-three square miles—primarily industrial brownfields—are generally known as “the Neck,” or alternatively “NoMo” (North Morrison), or the more inclusive “Upper Peninsula,” with its zippy acronym, “UP.” And things are looking “up” in this area that is increasingly ripe with fresh thinking and fresh enterprise, an area that’s evolving organically and beginning to aggregate talent and sprout small, sustainable, local, and largely “creative” businesses. GrowFood’s mural could be a pseudo-calling card for this influx of creative people and energy.

The mural is the delightful handiwork of Charleston artist David Boatwright, but the optimism and growth potential that it evokes belongs to a broader amalgamation of Charleston’s “artists”—not just painters, musicians, and actors but a diverse and amorphous group of entrepreneurs and professionals referred to, in economic development-speak, as the “creative class” or “creative cluster.” And an ad-hoc clustering of these businesses along Morrison and upper Meeting Street, east of King Street and I-26, suggests that perhaps a “creative corridor” is emerging in Charleston.

Hot spots along this corridor include GrowFood and next door a rehabbed old forge that is now the Royal American, the latest offering from the Revolutionary Eating Ventures (REV) folks, who were early pioneers in this neck of the woods—or peninsula—when they opened Taco Boy on Huger Street in 2009. Nearby there’s Cone 10, a ceramics studio; DwellSmart, an eco-friendly home-goods store that migrated from Mount Pleasant; the Tattooed Moose, a hip dive bar and diner; One Cool Blow, a LEED-certified residential/commercial development; and across from that, the brand new Studio PS, a performance space/gallery/arts-and-culture emporium. These more recent UP-and-comers join established residents such as Charleston City Paper, Rug Masters, Bird Hardware, Santi’s, and the landmark Martha Lou’s Kitchen. Further up you’ll find Cru Catering, Michael James Moran’s woodwork studio, and a large and lovely vacant brick building at 1600 Meeting Street—but more on that in a bit.  

So Who Are “Creatives”?

As you might expect, the so-called “creatives” interpret this moniker creatively—less as a rigidly defined category than a broad, inclusive canvas. The cluster encompasses everyone from mural painters to marketing pros, software designers to architects to publishers. Sure, we’re talking tattooed hipsters who travel by skateboard and designers sporting fedoras and vintage frocks, but there are an equal number of “buttoned-downed” professionals who’d fit in at a Rotary Club breakfast. Beyond the stereotypical fringe element offering “color” and entertainment value, creatives are well-educated, well-informed business people and community leaders. Demographic research indicates they tend to have college or graduate degrees, earn higher-than-average wages, and are philanthropically inclined. (As an aside, The Wall Street Journal ranked the Charleston Metro region as having the highest growth in adults with college degrees in the country in 2011.) In short, “creatives” are the kinds of people you want in your community, and perhaps more significantly, they are the kinds of people that companies like Boeing and BMW want in places where they’re considering locating and investing.

According to Richard Florida, a Toronto-based economic trending expert and author of 2002 best seller The Rise of the Creative Class, this sector represents some 40 million Americans, more than a third of our workforce, who trade in intellectual or creative capital, whose livelihood is derived from some form of innovative enterprise. They are landscape architects, photographers, graphic artists, digital media experts, restaurateurs, gallery owners; everyone from potters to event planners, musicians to marketing gurus, software developers to soft-shoe dancers, and, of course, your trusty freelance writer penning this article.

In Charleston, these creatives may set up shop in edgy districts such as the Upper Peninsula or hang a shingle on Upper King or along Spring and Cannon streets (home to Stitch Design, Fuzzco, Magar Hatworks, and WildFlour Bakery, to name a few). Many others fly under the radar. Their offices may be local coffee shops, their storefronts only  URLs, but their collective economic impact in the Charleston metro region alone is $1.4 billion.

Did you get that? One point four billion bucks. That’s according to a 2010 study commissioned by Charleston’s Creative Parliament, the de facto Chamber of Commerce equivalent for local creatives, except that Parliament is more the anti-Chamber. “We’re an all-volunteer ad-hocracy,” says Robert Prioleau, a partner in the unabashedly innovative digital branding agency Blue Ion and one of Parliament’s kick-starters. “Just try to get these folks into a committee meeting,” he laughs. Committees or not, Prioleau and his fellow Parliamentarians have managed to rally Charleston’s creative community into a lively coalition where creativity is cultivated and supported, and celebrated in high energy showcase events like Pecha Kucha (Pecha what? See “We wanted to encourage collaboration and connection among like-minded people,” Prioleau says. “We are creative because we gather; we don’t gather because we’re creative.” But even more than the fun of hosting hip, mash-up events, Parliament sought objective, quantifiable affirmation that Charleston’s creative class was the legitimate economic force they sensed it was.

To that end, they, along with the Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA) and New Carolina (SC Council on Competitiveness), commissioned an in-depth study, completed by the North Carolina consulting firm Regional Technology Strategies (RTS), to help put real numbers to the size and overall economic impact of Charleston’s creative workforce. Among the report’s eye-opening findings: creative industries represent the fourth largest sector of our local economy (just below biotech/medicine and life sciences), and they put $474 million in earned wages into local pockets in 2009. The upshot: creative industry jobs may be mostly mom-and-pop enterprises, but they create a Big Daddy imprint. (See sidebar, page 79.)

Talent Draws Talent

To Steve Warner, a former advertising and marketing professional (i.e. a “creative”) who now is vice president for Global Marketing and Regional Competitiveness for the CRDA, these stats mean business. “The number one question we hear from site selection teams of major corporations or industries we are trying to recruit is ‘do you have a strong talent pool?’” says Warner, also a key player in Parliament. “These companies want to know that Charleston has creative, innovative, educated people they can hire or contract with, so being able to share this data is key.”

In the CRDA’s latest Cluster Management Strategies plan (2011-2016), “Opportunity Next: Building a Globally Competitive Economy for the Charleston Region,” growing the region’s talent base, recruiting talent, and creating more opportunities for that talent to diversify and grow is a strategic objective that cuts across the four industry sectors targeted for development: aerospace, advanced security and IT, biomedical, and wind energy. Future success in attracting these types of industries directly correlates to the strength of our creative cluster and related talent pool, suggests Warner.

“Talent draws talent,” he adds. “Creative talent these days goes where creative people want to live—quality of life is the main driver—and business development follows.” Other states and regions understand this new economic growth dynamic. North Carolina and Mississippi have both completed strategic evaluations of their creative clusters and launched national media campaigns designed to woo the creative class. Cities ranging from Buffalo, New York, to Paducah, Kentucky, have recognized the need to invest in their cultural/creative milieus as a key economic growth strategy.

A Creative Hub

So how exactly do you attract and support this admittedly amorphous non-group group called the “creative cluster?” What are the components of a sustainable economic environment in which creatives can thrive? Should there be a designated district that literally puts them on the map? Is this what the emerging creative corridor along the upper peninsula may become?

These questions keep Kate Nevin up at night and pumped during the day. Kate, a financial manager, and her husband, Lindsay, a developer and restoration specialist, have become key players in this conversation about nurturing Charleston’s creative community—all because of an old brick building, that big empty one at 1600 Meeting Street mentioned earlier.

“Lindsay fell in love with it at first sight almost 10 years ago,” says Kate. The circa-1926, three-floor, 11,200-square-foot, boxy but stately columned structure—a former office building for Exxon, with a brief iteration as an antiques mall—has been vacant for more than two decades. Lindsay’s initial bid for the property in 2007 fell through, then the market imploded, the price fell, and he tried again, this time successfully. And this time, Kate had a clear and passionate vision for what 1600 Meeting might become: a brick-and-mortar home base to aggregate and support Charleston’s burgeoning creative community. 

“I was at a Pecha Kucha event, listening to Parliament’s impressive presentation about the economic impact of Charleston’s creative industries, and got this idea that we could create a physical space for creative people to come together, work, and connect on a daily basis. It follows the ‘power in numbers theory,’” says Kate. They envision 1600 Meeting as an invigorating mix of office space, studios, design center, small business resource center, maybe a restaurant or incubator kitchen—a place where common areas are buzzing with supportive give-and-take and water cooler chat is wildly cool and imaginative. In many ways, 1600 Meeting would do for creative individuals and businesses what nearby GrowFood Carolina is doing for farmers.

But Kate’s dream of a physical creative hub isn’t contained to one central property, nor is it hers alone. Karalee Nielsen of REV, William Cogswell, Jr. of One Cool Blow, and Ade Ofunniyin, Ph.D., aka “Dr. O” of Studio PS, are just a few of the UP players who are exploring the possibility of branding the Upper Peninsula not just as a “corridor” but as a distinct district, stretching roughly from Huger to Cherry Hill streets, east of I-26. There are no established criteria for creating a “district,” per se, according to Christopher Morgan, division director of the Planning Commission for the City of Charleston, but it can be done, and may even open the door to some benefits such as economic development tools, incentives, and infrastructure.

“It would be a way to say, ‘We’re here, and we’re focused on design, sustainability, and collaboration.’ It’s possibly a very unique opportunity to create an arts and design district from scratch, a way to focus on artists as a workforce,” says Kate, who has invited residents and business owners to community meetings to begin exploring these ideas and hear their thoughts and concerns. “We’re not trying to impose anything,” she says. “It’s about engaging the community that is already there to define and determine what they want, need, and envision, and then seeing what happens.”

“UP” for Prosperity

These broader questions of how to cultivate and support the creative cluster and this possibility of branding the “UP” as a creative district overlap with other ongoing discussions in City Halls and regional planning offices. The CRDA; the City of North Charleston; the City of Charleston; and the Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester Council of Governments (BCDCOG) are tuned-in, particularly as these issues converge with regional planning efforts. BCDCOG has been holding public forums and charettes to develop its “Partnership for Prosperity,” a long-term master plan that includes the Neck area, for more than a year now, and is about to finalize its draft. (See sidebar, page 83.)

“Our goal was to create a land-use plan and vision that supports small businesses in this area,” says Jeff Burns, a former planner with BCDCOG. “It’s exciting to see a lot of this already happening on its own.” The master plan, with an emphasis on transit hubs to stitch together Charleston and North Charleston, will ideally provide some infrastructure to support what is organically taking shape in the private sector.

“It was terrific synergy to learn of these plans for 1600 Meeting Street,” adds Burns. “What they’re working toward is right in line with our vision. We’ve focused on Meeting Street as a ‘community’ street with prominent bike/pedestrian facilities and a character scaled toward people, not on moving freight. We’ve added 1600 Meeting by name into the plan.”

The Neck area’s geographic connective tissue between North Charleston, Charleston, I-26 and 526, and the new port facilities on the former Navy base has long been eyed by developers for large-scale projects—most recently the Magnolia Project’s proposed massive overhaul of 216 acres of industrial brownfields into upscale residential and mixed-use neighborhoods west of I-26 along the Ashley River. But time and again, the region has seen such ambitious top-down, deep-pocket developments (think Noisette and Mixson, along with Magnolia) sputter, fizzle, or never really get off the dime. Now this gradual, natural influx into the Upper Peninsula by creatives seeking funky spaces and affordable rents presents an alternative model, i.e. redevelopment by slow trickle and shallow pockets, and it seems to be gaining traction.

“We’ve seen how difficult it is to manufacture a cool space,” observes Prioleau. “Maybe it’s best not to do it in big pieces, but instead to see where things naturally settle. But you also can’t just leave it totally to chance.” The Partnership for Prosperity’s draft plan overlays public sector and infrastructure support that may help sustain this natural momentum already underway.  

People, Place; Place, People

When Karalee Nielsen landed in Charleston 11 years ago, the culinary school drop-out had no intention of becoming a wildly successful restaurateur. She just jived to the warm welcome she felt from folks and was attracted to an intangible, innovative vitality she sensed around town. One thing led to another, and now Nielsen and business partner Tim Mink are dreaming up the eighth restaurant concept for REV, creators of Taco Boy, Monza, Poe’s, Raval-turned-Closed for Business, and the Royal American. And this next one, like Taco Boy on Huger Street and the Royal American, will be in the UP—in a renovated, classic old brick corner store with big plate glass windows on the predominately residential 700-block of King Street.

“We wanted a neighborhood location for this next restaurant, and I really like the grit, the character that comes with an old building,” says Nielsen, who loves the “360 degrees of creativity, from coming up with the concept, to the food on the plate, to the dining atmosphere” of the restaurant business. Nielsen seemingly gambled when she planted the second Taco Boy on Huger Street. “People told us we were crazy,” she says, but she liked the foot-of-the-bridge proximity to Mount Pleasant while still being downtown, and the lower prices that come with being a “pioneer.”  Plus, she says, “We like blazing our own path. I’ve always loved the adjective ‘rogue.’ We try to do things that are a little out of the box.”

Which is exactly why the creative cluster, creative community, creative spirit is so important to Charleston, and why supporting it is vital, suggests Nielsen. Being “out of the box” means having a distinct character, a unique selling point. The creative community is what “keeps Charleston from becoming Anywhere USA,” she says. “Just as the local food movement has really caught on and become so hot, we also need to celebrate our local people. Charleston is Charleston because of the people. We need to support those who are here and making this place work,” she adds. “That’s our spirit and soul.”

Nielsen’s Upper Peninsula neighbor, Ade Ofunniyin (“Dr. O”), further expounds on this point, underscoring that supporting creatives also means supporting the African-American neighbors who have always lived in the Upper Peninsula. Ofunniyin grew up in Harlem but hails from Charleston—his grandfather was legendary blacksmith Philip Simmons—and created Studio PS (named for Simmons) as a cultural crossroads and “epicenter” for Gullah culture in Charleston, a venue where local artists and local talent can be viewed, discovered, and appreciated.

“We have remarkable talent that needed a platform and a venue to perform and develop their gifts,” says Ofunniyin, who formerly served as provost of the College of the Building Arts and was an anthropology professor at the University of Florida. Dr. O helped friend Chuma Nwokike start the African-American art gallery, which later became Gallery Chuma, on John Street years ago and knows how difficult it can be for African-Americans to find venues for their work. “I’ve always imagined a community that supports the local people, that includes others beyond the representation of art we get in galleries downtown,” he says.

When Dr. O hosted the recent Upper Peninsula neighborhood meeting at Studio PS—including the Nevins, Cogswell, and about 35 others, black and white, business owners and residents—it was the first of many dialogues and forums he envisions as part of Studio PS’s cultural offerings. “We have to bring unity to this community,” he says. “I dream of a Charleston that I can be proud of; that my children and grandchildren can grow up in, go off to college, and come back to find opportunity or create opportunities if they want to. I’m an entrepreneur,” Ofunniyin adds. “What I’m building is community. There’s no more beautiful place than right here in Charleston; this is a grand opportunity.”

Perhaps if and as the Upper Peninsula becomes home to more and more of Charleston’s creative community, the emphasis will shift from the adjective “creative” to the noun “community,” as Dr. O and others hope. An innovative and imaginative community will be an increasingly inclusive one, and vice-versa.

“What we’re seeing is the power diverse, creative, sustainable local businesses have to attract other local like-minded businesses,” says Kate Nevin. “It’s the power of creativity to revitalize a region.”