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Sunday, 04 August 2013 21:25

Creatives drive cool factor in Southwest Michigan

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Jeremy Andrews (center) noodles around with Rita Kiuk, Joseph Lin, Clement Mawia and Emily Tial at Unstoppable Noodle. Jeremy Andrews (center) noodles around with Rita Kiuk, Joseph Lin, Clement Mawia and Emily Tial at Unstoppable Noodle. PHOTO: ERIK HOLLADAY

Disc golf courses, cardboard sled races, and locally grown food in urban settings likely never would have happened in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo without the creative class that is gaining traction in both communities.

Jeremy Andrews, who refers to himself as an “excitement engineer,” is one of those 40 million Americans in the so-called creative class. He moved back to his native Battle Creek from Portland, Ore. more than five years ago and immediately set about the work of creating vibrancy in the community where he grew up.

“I want people to say they’re proud of being from Battle Creek,” Andrews said. “It’s the ‘anti-Battle Creek Sucks’ campaign. Rather than complaining about what there isn’t, we need to create what we want to see happen.

“If we want people to get out more and be active, we’ve got to create and support the ones that are here, too.”

He calls this effort the “Confederation of Cool.”

“The Confederation of Cool isn’t so ridiculously focused on competition,” he said. “You win when we realize these movements can be built and you’re working with lots of people to make it happen.”

This is the approach that Andrews has taken and it’s paid off in the form of the “Hive,” a neighborhood gathering space; the formation of the Battle Creek Metropolitan Mustache Society, a nonprofit that hosts events and fundraisers for other nonprofits; and Sprout Urban Farms, which helps neighborhood residents grow and harvest fresh fruits and vegetables.

Author Richard Florida coined the term “creative class” in his bestselling book, “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Florida traces the fundamental theme that runs through a host of seemingly unrelated changes in American society: namely, the growing role of creativity in our economy.

Leading this transformation are the 40 million Americans — more than a third of the national workforce — who create for a living. This “creative class” is found in a variety of fields, from engineering to theater, biotech to education and architecture to small business. Experts say their choices have already had a huge economic impact. In the future, they will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt and even which cities will thrive or wither.

Much of what Andrews has done began over a casual conversation. He said the beauty of these efforts is in their simplicity.

West Michigan Beer Tours founders John Liberty, Lisa Faber and Aric Faber. COURTESY PHOTO“I think the way to build support is to build a movement and making friends that are like you and teaching them that it’s OK to take risks,” Andrews said.

A conversation during a wiffle ball game between John Liberty and Aric Faber, who both live in Kalamazoo, resulted in a new business venture for the pair called West Michigan Beer Tours. Since its launch in May, Liberty, a reporter with the Kalamazoo Gazette, and Faber, sales director for Sales Pitch Technologies, have been taking groups and individuals on tours of craft breweries throughout West Michigan.

“Our three main points emphasize education, drinking responsibly and having a good time,” Liberty said. “The last thing we want is a drunk party bus. That’s not what we do.”

Public tours typically happen on Saturdays and private tours for corporate groups or families are scheduled on weekdays and weekends. A bus is used to take participants to the breweries where they sample beers, eat and learn about the beer-making process.

“We’re celebrating West Michigan’s beer culture and people are supporting that in a big way,” Faber said. “Breweries are supporting that in a big way.”

Lately the pair, who still work full-time at their other jobs, has been kept busy entertaining partnership and sponsorship opportunities from businesses such as hotels and golf courses that are seeing the potential for such ventures with West Michigan Beer Tours. Faber’s wife, Lisa, a realtor, works on developing these partnerships and works with companies who request private tours.

“We’ve been running fast and furiously,” Liberty said. “With some people that we’ve talked to, they’ve been so excited and we have had to rein in their expectations. We have 30 or 40 breweries here and people get really excited about the things they could offer. … We are hyperlocal. This is a small business working with small businesses working with other small businesses.”

Faber and Liberty declined to provide information about what they spent to get the business up and running, other than to say they could have spent a lot more.

“We wanted to jump in the right way and wanted to make sure we had everything set from a legal and accounting standpoint,” Faber said. “We want people to know that we’re a real business which is supported in the right way.”

In Battle Creek, Andrews said he likes the small and slow growth business model because of its ability to secure capital — both financial and social.

“The skin these people have in the game is time and patience,” Andrews said. “If the creative class had risk-taking economic backers or more government support, they could make it a lot more successful, but then we’d have very slow moving risk machines, and that would be OK if we could say we’ve been successful.”

The level of support for the creative class in Battle Creek is not yet where Andrews would like it to be. He said by definition, the community tends to be conservative, which does not lend itself well to the creativity of risk taking.

Those who make up the creative class in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo represent a diverse demographic mix that is much broader in terms of age and socioeconomic status. They are by definition risk-takers who are comfortable with creating new for-profit or nonprofit ventures with little or no financial backing to create a more vibrant community.

Andrews said he sees lots of little pockets of power and action going on, but he said the issue of rules still gets in the way.

“By design, we are taught that there are all these rules. What we’re not taught is we’re the people who make the rules,” he said. “A town like ours is really cool for a hybrid business model with businesses doing multiple things. For Battle Creek people, they need to start thinking outside conventional boundaries.

“We might not have the ability to support six or seven ethnic restaurants, but we could support a group of restaurants housed in the same building which could each be open one day a week. Collectives and cooperatives could really boom.”

Such efforts are critical to the continued success of communities, Faber said.

“It’s essential to the local economy to be a vibrant community people grow up in and want to stay in,” Faber said. “We’re seeing a lot of support in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids for what we’re doing.

“For me it doesn’t feel like work. I have two jobs and when I get done with one job, I have a beer and put together a proposal and I’m having fun. When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to take that approach.”

Andrews said he thinks the creative class is continually rising. He said ongoing support for their efforts is crucial.

“We’re building leaders and not in the conventional sense that gives power to the person who’s letting someone be a leader,” he said. “You need to build them up quick and give them as much confidence as you can from your end.”

Read 11221 times Last modified on Sunday, 04 August 2013 13:56

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