High cost of living means heavy commuting for creatives

If you make $40,000 a year and live in Waterbury, you can afford an apartment in town and put food on the table. If you make that same $40,000, you would not be able to do so in Stamford or likely any other Gold Coast Fairfield County town.

That high cost of living remains one of the impediments to business growth in the region, a graphic arts company owner told a focus group of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments. The group met March 23 at the Comstock Community Center.

The focus group, on the creative economy of the region, was intended to reveal more about the ups and downs of workers like graphic artists, photographers, painters, writers, video makers, and other professionals working in the arts, heritage, information, and technology fields.

“By far, it’s the housing crisis that troubles us,” said Dan Taylor, president of Taylor Design Group in Stamford.

His firm specializes in graphic arts and Web design, and has produced professional logos for top corporations. He said he pays his entry-level talent $40,000 a year, which he said is about the same as they would earn in New York City, and they cannot afford to live in town.

Instead, many live with their parents up the railroad line in places outside New Haven or perhaps in Waterbury, and many commute to work, so rail transportation becomes very important.

“One comes from Cheshire, another comes from Milford, one is from New Haven. They would like to live in Stamford but they can’t afford it,” Taylor told the group moderators, Jackie Lightfield, executive director of Stamford Partnership, and Lisa Scails, executive director of Cultural Alliance of Western Connecticut.

Scails was more than familiar with the problem of high rental costs in lower Fairfield County. It has meant that fostering an arts community is more difficult than ever. Artists have had to move over the past several decades from Stamford to Norwalk, and then to Bridgeport, in order to find affordable places to show their work and live, she said.

It’s a problem that is not likely to go away anytime soon, she said.

The focus group explored the challenges and opportunities faced by the creative sector in the region, including digital media, creative arts, graphic design, marketing, sports/entertainment production, etc. Barriers, growth, supply chain, and distribution were some of the many topics discussed.

A strong point for Fairfield County is that it is close to New York City, which is a hub of the marketing, advertising and creative arts worlds, Taylor said. It is a location for being a creative worker that is more impactful than, say, being in Indiana.

One of the biggest challenges to the creative professions today is global competition via the Internet, he said. Graphic designers operating with low overhead in Latin America can compete for logo design work online with companies in the New York hub.

What that means for companies like his is that they must offer top-flight professional services, with the best talent, and the best customer service, because they could never compete on price with the low-cost alternatives.

“Our customers are big corporations that want professional service and the best talent. They don’t want to pay $99 for a logo on the Internet,” he said, showing how his company can survive amid the chaos of global competition.

These are all experiences that rang home for Kevin Bielmeier, economic development director for the town of New Milford, who also attended the session.

New Milford has been trying to build a creative arts community of its own.

“A wonderful thing to remember about creative artists is they are like everyone else, they want a place to work and to play. And when it comes to play time, they probably want it more than anyone else,” Bielmeier said, pointing out that a community of artists is good for business and development all around.

The Western Connecticut Council of Governments will use the insights from the creative arts session and other sessions on other topics to develop a strategy going forward for how to improve the state’s business climate.