Sunshine State Scenarios: Florida’s Future in a Changing America

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Let’s start with some ridiculous riddles:

How do you make a small fortune in Florida real estate?
(Start with a big one.)

Why is Florida a large part of the American Dream?
(You have to be asleep to believe it’s real.)

Where do you find Floridians with the biggest smiles?
(In North Carolina.)

Why is Tallahassee located in Florida’s panhandle?
(Because the rest of the state is in the frying pan.)

What is the new official state song of Florida?
(The Tennessee Waltz.)

Why won’t an alligator ever bite a member of the Florida State legislature?
(Professional courtesy.)

These days it is really hard to be an optimist about Florida’s prospects, and very easy to write cynical humor about the sunshine state.

Most of the current mainstream images about Florida conjured up by the national media are of the “big bang” and “barely audible whimper” variety.

The former evokes images of a devastating hurricane with ensuing urban looting, followed by droughts and raging wildfires and more home foreclosures and homeless families.

The latter vision is less cinematic but equally distressing. It includes a slow but steady deterioration of civic virtue, public services and infrastructure…coupled with a continuing exodus of both educated young people and affluent 50-something professionals.

As a person who currently lives about four months of the year in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, I can assure my fellow Floridians that these regions are also in a hell-in-a-hand-basket mode. But the Sunshine state is paramount to the American Dream even when we are not asleep…while much of the northern tier of the country is in the American nightmare of seemingly permanent economic decline.

When Ohio factory workers become unemployed, or young college grads from Indianapolis get diplomas but no suitable job offers, or retiring white- and blue-collar workers in Chicago get access to their retirement accounts, many head down here.

It is inevitable that Florida has become a land of disenchantment. Like the failed and disillusioned Ponce de León and his doomed quest for the mythical Fountain of Youth, dreams quickly evaporate under a harsh and unrelenting sun.

As Lily Tomlin may have said, “Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it.”

All the problems of 21st century America are writ large in Florida. If these national conundrums cannot be solved here, it is unlikely that they will be resolved anywhere else in the country over the long term.

Are Florida’s political, academic, media, and business elites up to the job of effectively restructuring just about everything in the state to be competitive in a global economy?
(This is a rhetorical question without a written answer.)

That is why ordinary taxpaying citizens and authentic grassroots organizations will be vital to the prospects of our state. There is really no one else to keep our decision maker’s feet to the fire and eyes focused forward. This is especially true now that Craigslist has permanently crippled our daily newspapers and decimated its cadre of hard-nosed investigative reporters.

The key challenges facing Florida can be arbitrarily grouped into a number of categories, but they really form a single mishmash. That is why I’ve run them all together without bullet points or commas:

Preservation of our aquifers and wetlands Revamping of building codes in response to global climate change Affordable hurricane insurance premiums The reversal of negative demographic trends Improving race relations Mass transit Dedicated funding of education on all levels Development of a “new urbanism” in response to sprawl Public healthcare and insurance options Crime control Humane juvenile justice system Better child welfare Tax reform Homelessness and Affordable housing

In this blog entry, I hope to explore the emerging role of Cultural Creatives (CCs) in the creation of positive and doable scenarios for our state’s future.

I start with four reasonable (but depressing) assumptions:

    1. Health insurance will cost the independent creative business person as much or more two years from now…and the cost will continue to escalate over the next decade.

 

  • There will be no meaningful reform or regulation of Wall Street…and one can expect another, but far more serious financial meltdown, within the next decade.

 

 

  • Urban sprawl will continue to spread over much our remaining wetlands and precious undeveloped coastal areas…this is all that the entrenched and politically potent business interests know how to do.

 

 

  • The Pentagon will be fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the foreseeable future and beyond…while a demoralized and resigned public diverts its attention to spectator sports and video games.

 

On a somewhat rosier note:

I posit that CCs will soon have a collective epiphany via social networking technology. Many will realize elections are relatively easy to win with savvy branding and a catchy tagline, but that does not automatically translate into effective governance and public policies. Apparently, quite the contrary.

CCs will finally step away from their computers and become real political grassroots players in both political parties.

Virtually all of the state’s problems require both real community dialogue (that includes deep listening rather than mob rants) and practical design solutions. For too long, the only voices behind the closed doors of power have been lawyers, lobbyists, and one-issue political ideologues. Unfortunately, most of these people represent the most divisive, inflexible, and wrongheaded minds in the state.

Conversely, many creative professionals are eager problem solvers with an appetite for ambiguous situations, a penchant for paradox, and a strong desire to give coherent form to the chaotic cacophony of life. Most CCs can do what the body politic cannot…

We can flexibly play with different points of view in changing circumstances without cracking-up (most of the time), create things and experiences of real economic value (at least on our good days), and have a global outlook (especially in food).

In terms of some practical ideas, here is an array of personal and collective items for your consideration:

  • Volunteer to do creative stuff in the public schools.

The combination of direct experience and real role models will start to create a future constituency for a homegrown creative economy in Florida. The stark reality is that there is currently not enough political will or public money to adequately fund widespread art, design, music, dance, and theater education for our young people.

 

  • Support objective science education in public schools.

 

If theocrats eliminate the study of evolution (or water it down as just another faith-based theory), a majority of our young people will not be educationally equipped for the global economy. Also, the most advanced and dynamic bio-tech corporations and research institutes will avoid our state like the plague. It is commercially applied innovative technology that generates real wealth, rather than bogus bucks found on Wall Street and cookie-cutter strip malls and condo development.

It is these genuine profits that can sustain high-quality cultural institutions and creative professionals. And it looks like the biological sciences will be driving force of the 21st century.

 

  • Think both nationally and globally in your personal marketing efforts.

 

The web has made the successful promotion of independent creative services a viable online option. You might be surprised to find that other places will pay more for your applied talents than Tampa Bay. It is a far better bet than a state lottery ticket.

 

  • Create a “Florida League of Cultural Creative Voters.”

 

The proposed FLCCV would provide a simple and objective “scorecard” of each state legislator’s voting record on key cultural and creative economy issues. Each year, a lawmaker would receive an annual overall numerical rating on his or her support of the league’s written agenda…and many of us would cast our votes accordingly.

CCs would be a highly visible political block, and politicians of both parties would think twice before cutting critical arts, education, and environmental funding in closely contested elections.

Organizationally, it could be modeled on the Maine League of Conservation Voters.

 

  • Read the last two chapters and epilogue of Dr. Gary Mormino’s “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida.”

 

Gary is the distinguished director of the Florida Studies Program at USF/St.Pete. He understands the state as well as anyone and how it became what it is.

I am ending this blog entry with one of Gary’s key ideas about our particular peninsula and peculiar brand of paradise:

“But Florida has always been more about tomorrow’s possibilities than today’s realities.”


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