It’s become something of a local cliche: Energized outsider falls in love with Savannah and moves to town armed with new ideas -- only to slink off in humiliation, defeated by Savannah’s legendary apathy and by the insularity and short-sightedness of the local old-boy network.

Chris Miller, founder and director of The Creative Coast Initiative, seems to be cut of a different cloth, however. Though a more energized outsider with newer ideas you’ll never find, he’s been able to secure for Creative Coast the confident backing of the local business community, working as an integral arm of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.

How has Miller succeeded where so many have failed? His bright, engaging personality doesn’t seem to have hurt. Nor has his warp-factor speed in grasping abstract economic concepts, both micro and macro.

And to be completely blunt, it also can’t have hurt his case that as vice president of the Mindspring/Earthlink internet giant in the ‘90s, Miller was involved with enough cold hard cash to bring tears of joy to the crusty eyes of the most ossified of Savannah’s old money bluebloods.

But to hear Miller himself explain things, it still all boils down to -- you guessed it -- falling in love with Savannah.

“I was born in Virginia, grew up in Delaware and Rhode Island, worked in Africa for many years. I’ve been all over,” he says. “I’ve been around the block and I know what a good place looks like.”

Miller’s goal with the two-year-old Creative Coast Initiative is to invigorate the economy of the local MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area, ours comprising Chatham, Bryan and Effingham counties) by promoting “knowledge-based businesses” such as design firms, software publishers, ISPs, advertising, architecture and yes, your friends in the media.

These knowledge-based businesses help Savannah in two ways: One, they can dramatically lift area wage levels; and two, they tend to bolster quality-of-life aspects like arts, culture and the environment.

For Miller, The Creative Coast concept is summed up in a single word: Innovation.

“Innovation is the intersection of art and technology,” he explains. “Thinking creatively to apply technology to solve problems.”

We spoke to Miller last week in our office and again at the Creative Coast digs within the SEDA building off Chatham Parkway. There, Miller works with the rest of the young and hard-working Creative Coast staff: project manager Fitz Haile, project assistant Danielle Valcourt-Smith, and designer Stefanie Danhope-Smith.

Connect Savannah: You’ve compiled some really interesting numbers from your latest research.

Chris Miller: Well, we’ve graphed the average real weekly wage in the Savannah MSA, which is the simplest number you can get. You can see the vast majority of our jobs are down here, below $400 a week (graph, page 8). Then you move here, to about $1300 a week, and you get a little bump. But then you see it just flatlines from there.

When people look at the number of jobs in Savannah, they start doing their happy dance saying, “we’ve created so many new jobs” -- but that’s just because everyone wants to count noses. No one wants to count dollars. But with the decline of the manufacturing sector here, what’s actually happening is we’ve replaced $1000 a week jobs with $250 a week jobs. That decreases our tax base by 50 percent.

Then we gathered data on real wage growth, and compared the Savannah MSA with regional MSAs against the national average wage since 1990. You really have to compare MSA to MSA rather than city to city, because the MSA is the real economic entity.

Looking at the state of Georgia’s wage growth, you say, hey, the state’s kicking butt (graph, page 7). Not only have wages grown by over four percent, but the average wage in Georgia is now a little higher than the national average. Then you look down here and you see the Macon MSA with a negative 5.3 percent wage growth. And -- uh-oh -- there’s the Savannah MSA, below Macon.

So with all this talk about a Savannah renaissance, we’re actually racing Macon to the bottom in real average wages. We’ve got this massive port, all these pretty buildings and 6.5 million tourists a year, and we’re not even tracking the state with wage growth.

If all we aspire to be is Macon, we’ve got serious problems. If we aspire to be Charleston, I guess we could lord it over them and say, well, our average wage started higher than Charleston’s. But look at their rate of increase -- it’s incredible. It’s not just the real increase, but the rate of increase. If Charleston’s wage growth keeps going at current projections they’re going to blow by us.

Connect Savannah: From which sources do you derive your raw data?

Chris Miller: We get most of it from the federal and state Departments of Labor. They collect exact wage and tax information from every business in operation. We assume that’s the best data available, except for where someone’s willing to go to jail for giving false numbers. No one else counts.

All the other numbers are hocus pocus. When we started looking for this data we discovered that most of the numbers out there are totally bogus. People use multipliers to make their case, and they go out to a firm and buy whatever multiplier they need to make that case. You ask how they come up with those multipliers, and oh, they can’t tell you that, that’s their secret sauce.

So a year and a half ago we threw all numbers out the window. We found a method by which we could create a definite list of what is and what is not a knowledge-based business simply by using two different data sets from the feds. One table says we know in law firms, for example, that there are x number of lawyers, y janitors, z secretaries and b number of IT folks. The U.S. government has classified every business into a NAICS code -- short for North America Industry Classification System. We know that for every NAICS code, in every business in that NAICS code there’s a certain number of employees.

Another index tells them what percent of what types of occupation are knowledge-based -- for example, we know software engineers are 90 percent knowledge- based. We can then lay one template on top of another for every NAICS code. Certain occupations are knowledge-heavy -- software engineer is, janitor isn’t -- so we can extract how many people in a NAICS code are knowledge workers

Then we said, “Show us every NAICS code where 75 percent of the employees are knowledge-based.” Out pops a pattern -- boom -- here are the NAICS codes of businesses that are primarily knowledge-based. What Fitz Haile did here, and what we just won an award for in Chicago, is to create this new method of finding the gold nuggets that everybody in the world is panning for. That’s our secret sauce. But hey, it’s open source secret sauce.

Connect Savannah: What conclusions did you draw?

Chris Miller: From this data we know down to the penny and the single worker where the knowledge-based workers are. And we found out that knowledge-based businesses locally derive the same total wages as all the lower-wage, non-manufacturing businesses combined.

You don’t always see knowledge-based workers because they may not work for major corporations. They may telecommute. For example, you won’t see the editor of The Economist that works at the Landings. People like that are all part of knowledge-based businesses, but they don’t work in a glass skyscraper you can point to. The vast majority of knowledge-based businesses are small to micro-sized businesses, in a really quite place with a bunch of really smart people working really hard.

Another reason you don’t hear about them is that most are not from here originally. They’re not plugged into the oldtimers network. And the newcomers don’t know about each other because they themselves are not networked.

Connect Savannah: That’s your job, right? To get them networked.

Chris Miller: At the end of the day my job is to fix this (points to a graph) -- fix this real average wage and do it in a way that doesn’t screw up our quality of life.

Here’s the cool part about knowledge-based businesses -- they increase the real average wage and dramatically improve quality of life over other sectors. You don’t have to give up your town or pollute your water. Knowledge-based businesses are not just compatible with quality of life, the two are essential elements of each other. You can’t have a knowledge-based economy in a place that isn’t real, that isn’t clean and in a place that doesn’t have culture.

Connect Savannah: Can you prove that?

Chris Miller:
I don’t really need to because so many others have. Everybody’s doing this work. Other cities are using a demographic approach to create a place that’s cool for people aged 25-35. Tampa and Memphis are going after these folks in a big way.

Connect Savannah: Why is that?

Chris Miller: The 25-35 demographic and the demographic of workers in knowledge-based businesses are virtually interchangeable. These people are important for these reasons: They’ve already graduated, they already have work experience, they’ve just come out of college recently and have the latest tools. They haven’t found mates and they haven’t bought houses, so they’re transportable, they cross state lines. Also, they’re entering peak earning years, and therefore generating more tax base. They’re spending more money, they’re not sitting at home watching TV.

Why would these kids want to go to Birmingham, Alabama? They want to go to a place with art, culture, restaurants and a vibrant street life. Culture is important to knowledge workers.

The one problem with the 25-35 demographic is that the United States is losing this demographic and losing it in a big way. Atlanta is really screwing the pooch -- they’re losing that demographic even faster than the national average.

Connect Savannah: How is Savannah doing with the 25-35 age group?

Chris Miller: Here’s the wacky part. Not only is Savannah not losing the 25-35 age group, but we’re growing that sector faster than the overall population is growing that sector. Everybody says oh, that’s students. But I’m not talking about students. These people are at least 25 years old -- they’re already graduated and in the workplace.

A big difference is that for the very first time students are able to graduate, stay in Savannah and still be here three years later. If you’re here three or four years, that’s not a fluke, it’s a job. If you stay here five or 10 years, that’s not a job, that’s a career.

We’re also getting reverse migration now, these folks from here who went to Atlanta to get jobs and now want to come back. The cool thing is they’re coming back having worked in a knowledge-based economy. They’re returning to Savannah and there are now jobs for them here.

The job board we’ve put up at creativecoast.org has kicked ass and taken names -- actually, kicked ass and spit out jobs. We posted these jobs so people wouldn’t have to plug into the Savannah social network. That’s important for knowledge-based workers, because whether they’re newcomers or returnees they’re not tapped into the social network. We just put it all up bright in the sky and said, here’s the jobs, here’s your talent, talk amongst yourselves.

Connect Savannah: How has that old social network received all this?

Chris Miller: That’s not necessarily relevant at this point. There are always going to be some elements that don’t get it or don’t believe. You still see that -- for example, look at VeriSign. That’s one of the five largest payrolls in the city, and nobody knows about VeriSign. Overall this research has a pretty big impact on how Savannah thinks about itself and that’s critical.

Connect Savannah: What does your own vision of Savannah in the near future look like?

Chris Miller: Nobody wants Savannah to change. I don’t want it to change, I want to make it better. The key is quality growth over quantity growth. You can’t look at Hardeeville’s plan for 48,000 new homes and say that’s great for Savannah. That will look like Southern California. We can’t stop the growth from coming, but we can say if it’s qualitative growth or whether it’s quantitative only. That’s the challenge.

You know, I used to think we needed to make all the top ten lists in the country -- “Best for Singles,” “Most Wired,” whatever. Now I’m thinking, we’ve never been on any of those lists before and we’re doing really well. If we do make lists we’ll just be noticed by a lot of people we possibly can’t accommodate.

We want knowledge-based businesses with 25-35-year-old workers to be much more targeted. We don’t want international or national attention. I’d rather quietly go out and tap a few industries and sectors on the shoulder and say, hey, look at this, look what’s happening down here.

Savannah is right in the sweet spot for this emerging economy. It’s not about technology anymore, it’s about innovation. Knowledge-based work is clean, sustainable, and lends itself to arts, culture and music. It gives Savannah more of what Savannah is.

Connect Savannah: Where does the Creative Coast Initiative take these numbers from here?

Chris Miller: We’ve finished our economic analysis, and we understand very clearly what’s going on and what’s causing it. From this point forward we’ll be very focused exclusively on going outside of Savannah and talking to those businesses we’re interested in. We’ve done our planning, we’ve put a year’s worth of focus on growing internal companies more rapidly than they would have. We’ve got one of most active website portals in the region. We’ve created tools to allow existing companies to grow.

I guess you could say we’re finishing up preaching inside Savannah and ready to go outside. Now that we have that award we just won, that kind of makes it easier to get in the door with that little gold badge on our lapel.

Connect Savannah: I notice the arts are not on your list of knowledge-based businesses, but you do ‘preach’ a lot about the nexus of arts, technology and the economy.

Chris Miller: That’s kind of where Savannah Music Festival Director Rob Gibson and I are working the same street, but on different sides of that street. Daniel Pink wrote a book called A Whole New Mind, which talks about the transition of the economy from a left brain to a right brain economy. The leftbrain economy is logical and linear, and represents the things which will ultimately go overseas to be done.

Connect Savannah: That’s already happening as we speak.

Chris Miller: A lot of those jobs have and will continue to leave the country. Right brain jobs are not necessarily logical, but associative. Jumping from point A to point Q to point Z and back to point B. They’re predicated on people coming up with creative solutions which design things in a better way. You can’t outsource that. That plays to our strength, because the U.S. is the best in the world at innovation, entrepreneurship and coming up with creative solutions to new problems.

And here’s why it makes sense in Savannah: We all of a sudden woke up, and it turns out we’re sitting in the middle of the direction everybody wants to go. We’ve got one of the largest art schools in the country here, with a campus of one of the largest and most respected engineering schools also. We’re uniquely positioned to be extremely successful in this economy. Some people might not like the word “creative” in our title but if you don’t have creativity in your economy you won’t have much of an economy.

Connect Savannah: You work in the SEDA offices in partnership with that agency. Obviously you must have a fair degree of cooperation with other local governmental agencies as well.

Chris Miller: The city and the county have come on board as well as SEDA. These guys all bought our product sight unseen without necessarily understanding everything we were saying. They intuitively understood it was important. We didn’t have all these numbers at the time to back up what we were saying, so they made a wager, and they turned out to be right.

I thought it was a pretty damn bold step for politicians to take. In very few places in the U.S. have a city, county and local economic development authority been on the same page about something. In most places the city is at war with the county. This is an unusual alliance, and all the local leaders should be commended for their willingness to work together. Moving into this new era, collaborators will do better than noncollaborators.

Connect Savannah: Anti-science forces seem to have the upper hand across the U.S. today. The president opposes stem cell research. School boards all over the country are trying to limit the teaching of evolution -- that is, basic scientific education. Does this horrify you? Does it bode ill for your cause?

Chris Miller: Tolerant cities will win, intolerant cities will lose. It’s that simple. Talent will go where it’s most welcome, where the capital flows are, and where people are doing great science.

With stem cell research, so much of that money has already flown to the UK. Remember Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound?” Well, nowadays that’s caused by people stampeding to the exit to follow the research money. American investment in research and development has dropped pathetically low. Alarm bells should be going off everywhere. If people think they’ll march into the next century with this intolerant attitude, they’re driving right into the poorhouse

Connect Savannah: There’s a massive and worsening wealth disparity in this country, and in this area in particular. What can Creative Coast do to help solve the problem of growing poverty?

Chris Miller: We’re providing a wage growth path for people who were previously limited in their wages. Now, there’s something beyond that cap they can participate in. It will work for the African-American community as well as it will work for the Asian community and for the Latino community and for the white community.

For every 10 kids on the corner looking for trouble, one’s a geek. You have to find the geek. When kids listen to their mother, graduate from high school, stay out of trouble and then get an entry level job, we can’t tell them that’s all there is. You’ve got to have something more for them. This gives them that hope.

Creative Coast’s website is at

creativecoast.org/. To comment in a letter to the editor, e-mail us at

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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