Editor's Note: The following article appeared in the August 2012 edition of the Denton Business Chronicle.
It isn’t clear what attracts creative people to Denton. The music scene, the artistic culture, the two universities and the community feel all come to mind. These elements make Denton a welcome place for a creative class to build businesses around their art and attract other creative people.
Sean Starr, who recently moved to Denton from San Francisco, can’t put his finger on what “it” is that makes Denton, well, Denton. But he likes it.
“Denton’s just got a really awesome creative vibe,” said Starr, owner of Starr Studios, a branding agency focused on making signs.
Whatever “it” is, the city hopes to brand it and sell it. That’s why city officials are beginning to have discussions with creative minds like Josh Berthume, who founded a creative agency called Swash Labs, and Chris Flemmons, who started the 35 Denton music festival.
Berthume said members of the creative class of Denton don’t step on each other’s toes, but instead push one another to produce higher quality work. “We like to see each other succeed,” he said.
There is a dedication to the craft, whether it’s music, art or design, he said. “That has created a high bar,” Berthume said. “It’s almost a community standard we hold each other to.”
It’s something similar to the early days of Austin, he said. Many describe Denton as being the way Austin was decades ago.
“The joke I hear is Denton is like Austin was when it was cool,” Berthume said.
He sees the parallel.
“Denton is going to be different and I think that’s to our credit,” he said.
The city is trying to figure out how to take advantage of something that is already working pretty well, he said.
“I think the creative class is going to become part of the brand of Denton,” Berthume said.
Councilman Kevin Roden calls it “creative economy.”
He is trying to figure out how the city can use the momentum already created by local artists, capture it and market it.
On a recent Monday night, he held a meeting with creative minds in Denton and plans to hold more.
He said the younger generation is deciding what town they want to live in and then finding a job when they get there instead of going where the jobs already exist like previous generations.
“They go there and then they look for a job,” Roden said. “What they’re looking for is a sense of place. People who are in creative fields like to collaborate a lot.”
Roden said that cities are starting to recognize this.
The city of Denton and the Denton Chamber of Commerce should take advantage of the ingredients that are already here, he said.
By holding meetings and talking with creative individuals, Roden is trying to learn from them. “How do they understand the culture in Denton? What do they think we can do as a city to help things out?” he said.
“One of the nice things about this industry is it’s not requiring a ton of incentives from the city,” Roden said. To draw in large developments, such as Rayzor Ranch, the city offers incentive packages.
With this industry, people are coming to Denton for Denton.
“I think we can just learn,” Roden said. “Try and figure out where that momentum is going.”
Michael Seman, a research associate with the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research, said policy makers should encourage the creative people to arise by simply being supportive of them
Seman agreed with Roden that city officials don’t have to spend tons of money but they can offer their understanding and built-in resources to creative people.
“It’s hard to dictate through policy where creativity is going to happen,” Seman said.
Artists can live anywhere, he said, but tend to be drawn to other creative people.
Julie Glover, Denton’s economic development program administrator, said people who work in computer fields, music and art want to live in Denton because of the activity and culture of the city.
The mind change of people seeing art as a business has happened in the past few years, Glover said.
“It is an industry,” she said. “Whether it’s a piece of art or it’s a piece of music.” And other industries spring up around it.
That was Chris Flemmons’ idea behind 35 Denton—to attract creative people and build industries where they could work here.
City officials have been taking their cues from Richard Florida’s theories in The Rise of the Creative Class.
It’s been a long-term goal of city officials to assist in building this creative class. The plan was to have an arts corridor on East Hickory Street anchored by the Center for the Visual Arts and the Campus Theatre.
It didn’t happen exactly as the city had planned but people involved in the project, such as Fred Patterson, former publisher of the Denton Record-Chronicle, and Euline Brock, former mayor, say it turned out well.
Brock, who was mayor from 2000 to 2006, said it happened organically, piece by piece. “It’s better to have things that organic, that grows out of what’s there,” she said.
In his book, Florida suggests it is an organic process.
Florida’s theory is there are two groups of people—the super-creative core and the creative professionals. The first group includes writers, artists, entertainers and designers. The second group comprises knowledge-based professionals, such as high-tech sectors.
The super-creative core is well represented in Denton, Seman said. The quality of life and the having an open-minded community are part of what attracts the creative class, Seman said.
Since he’s been in Denton, Starr has created a sign for Bookish Coffee on the Square and he’s also working with Jupiter House to re-do its branding campaign. Starr put a gold leaf design in the front window of the coffee shop on the Square and painted signs on several walls.
Starr Studios creates full branding campaigns, which are centered around Starr’s signature hand-painted signs, which take about five hours to paint.
Right now, Starr and others have to go into Dallas to get work. He wants to get to the point where people from the Dallas and Fort Worth come to Denton for the creative class.
“I personally see the potential in Denton to become known in the Dallas market as a creative center,” Starr said.
And that’s something he and other want to promote.
Starr wants that to happen by having members of Denton’s creative class team up, he said.
GSATi (Global Solutions and Technology Inc.) is another company that sees Denton’s creative potential and wants to be a part of it.
GSATi, which offers technology services, marketing services and management services, is setting up shop in Denton because of the vibrant downtown community and its collective nature, said Jason Bodor, director of finance with the company and a Denton resident.
“The community itself was a good representation of our company,” he said.
The company will be moving to the Texas Building on the Square in October.
Previously the employees were working from their own homes but decided it would be good to have an office for collaboration.
Bodor pushed the company to have its space in Denton.
“We wanted a building with character and we wanted a town with character,” he said.
The company exposed its employees to the Denton culture and they agreed it was the right place.
The company also sees Denton’s potential for a future labor pool as the business grows, Bodor said.
Labor talent pool
Many of the potential creative minds to fill the labor pool come from the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University.
There are 2,250 art and design students at the University of North Texas, said Robert Milnes, dean of the College of Visual Arts and Design.
Creative people tend to hang out with other creative people whatever they’re doing, Milnes said.
“So what you want is a nucleus of creative people who then push each other to new heights,” he said.
That’s why there is a mix of creative folks in Denton. “It’s not a historical accident but it has historical precedence,” he said.
“The arts are fragile and, if you plan them too careful, they never grow,” he said.
One of the areas of design that’s grown because of the Internet, Milnes said, is communication design.
That’s what GSATI falls into.
“What’s expanded that industry is the Internet,” he said. “People are communicating more visually than ever before.”
Even UNT wants to be part of the “arts corridor” or creative class in Denton, which migrates toward the Square.
The university is planning to build a new arts building. At this point, it’s just waiting for the approval to come in from the state.
The state hasn’t been approving any buildings for the past few years, Milnes said.
The arts building will be on Mulberry Street. It will be the first UNT building to face Denton, he said.
Not only do the college students from both UNT and Texas Woman’s University add to the creative class in town, they also hang out and venues where art is performed and displayed.
To promote the creative class that is building up in downtown, the city plans to make improvements to East Hickory Street to improve the “walkability.” The city plans to make the sidewalks the “arts walk of fame” and it also will redo the water and sewer aspects under the street.
Glover said the form-based code, which allows buildings to be mixed use, also helps encourage arts and artists because it allows them to live above their shops.
Another boost for the creative class has been the addition of the A-train.
Milnes said the train offers a way for people to get back and forth to work from Denton to Dallas but it must offer something else.
“It has to be something that’s unique and better than something that’s 25 miles away,” he said, such as restaurants, clubs, exhibitions and performances other area cities don’t offer.
Those are the sorts of things that are unique, he said. “If you have a lot of them, it’s better than having one or two,” he said.
“The interesting thing is it’s both an economic force and a sort of cultural force that have gained ground and at a level they changed things,” Milnes said.
RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.