Facing the future

SparkCon participants brainstorm ways to harness creativity in a changing community

Staff WriterSeptember 23, 2007 

Under the shadow of the massive construction cranes remaking Raleigh's skyline, thousands flocked to the heart of downtown this weekend to sample the fruits of the creative forces that also are changing Raleigh.

They heard local bands in genres from bluegrass to hip hop, and saw the work of local filmmakers, artists and craftspeople. They watched dancers, listened to poets, tasted local organic and artisan-grown foods, purchased locally made products, and learned about cutting-edge local businesses.

Such events have become commonplace in the city's thriving downtown. But this one is different. The brainchild of entrepreneurs and artists connected with DesignBox -- a local gathering place where creative people can brainstorm and collaborate -- SparkCon is a festival with a purpose. It not only aims to celebrate the creative forces helping to revitalize downtown, but also to spark conversations about the future of that development.

While most people enjoyed the new downtown, a few dozen people gathered for two days to imagine what could come next. At a series of workshops at Vintage 21 on West Street, they addressed a central riddle that, despite all the gains, still bedevils many Raleighites: If we rank so highly in national surveys about quality of life, why isn't it more exciting?

Wrestling with that question, they posed even larger ones: What do we want Raleigh to look like in the future? How do we attract and keep the creative people -- ingenious high-tech entrepreneurs, talented restaurateurs, visionary artists -- who will build the type of community we want to live in?

Though raising broad questions, their focus was narrow. They were less concerned with the sprawling behemoth Raleigh has become than with the core downtown region that stretches from Five Points to Glenwood South, the warehouse district and City Market.

Larger public efforts to nurture the downtown arts scene, such as those by N.C. Symphony and Exploris Museum, received much less attention than ways that individuals might work on their own and with neighbors to make their communities more dynamic. This approach underscored SparkCon's can-do, highly entrepreneurial spirit. It does not look to government to remake Raleigh, but to smart, ambitious individuals. Its ethos seems to be: Ask not what Raleigh can do for you, ask what can you do for Raleigh.

One of the best examples of this idea in action is SparkCon itself. It's an all-volunteer event sparked by the creativity that has proceeded it. SparkCon is only in its second year, and it's hard to imagine it having taken place a decade ago when downtown was a moribund district.

The ongoing reinvigoration of downtown has shown what is possible. That success is a model for what can be done next. The seeds have been planted. SparkCon wants to nurture and expand that garden.

Sparkcon's lead organizer, Aly Khalifa, believes Raleigh will blossom by harnessing its talent. One key, he said, is to break the sense of isolation that plagues many of the city's creative people.

"There is so much creative work being done in Raleigh, but it's so spread out that it can be easy to miss, and make it hard for creative people to learn about each other" said Khalifa, who runs Gamil Designs, a local product design firm. "One of the things we want to do is help bring people together, so they can learn about each other, have a sense of community and bounce ideas off one another."

As a Khalifa suggests, SparkCon is more about process than plans. It did not provide detailed answers to the fundamental question it raised about Raleigh's future. Its workshops did not produce a manifesto for change but a series of goals -- about emboldening entrepreneurs, creating new spaces for artists, encouraging people to use mass transit. Some of the discussion owed more to sloganeering than deep thinking -- "battling corporate identity," "creating home-grown neighborhoods," "encouraging socially responsible businesses" and "creating public spaces where things can happen." But others -- especially the proposal to turn Dorothea Dix Hospital into a central complex for the performing and visual arts -- were inspired.

"Ninety percent of what we discussed will probably go nowhere," Khalifa said. "The other 10 percent is why we're here, those kernels of ideas that we can develop."

That's how creativity works. It's open-ended, full of blind alleys and false leads, as well as blinding insights. SparkCon urges residents to think about how they would like the city to be. And then share those ideas with others.

As Khalifa said, "When smart people come together, good things happen."

peder.zane@newsosberver.com or (919) 829-4773

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