CreateHere mission almost accomplished

CreateHere mission almost accomplished

January 8th, 2012 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Helen Davis Johnson is co-founder of CreateHere, which has helped entrepreneurs found more than 110 local businesses.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

The world of civic associations can roughly be divided into two types: established organizations staffed by suave professionals and boisterous groups that attract fresh-faced youth, ready to change the world.

Chattanooga-based CreateHere, which is about to disappear forever, was intended to be the latter.

Through five years, the Lyndhurst Foundation-backed group set up shop on Main Street and helped entrepreneurs found more than 110 local businesses with projected sales of more than $8 million. CreateHere conducted what it calls the world's largest visioning project, collecting more than 26,000 survey responses in record time, and relocated dozens of artists downtown to jump-start the creative economy.

Founders Helen Johnson and Josh McManus call the end of its five-year run a "supernova," a reference to the explosion of innovation that has so far spawned dozens of subgroups and side projects, some of which have taken on a permanent existance.

The group, which operates more like the French Revolution than a traditional company, has spread like a virus to other cities in other states, with one iteration currently launching in Detroit.

But CreateHere was designed from inception with a looming expiration date. The founders wanted to emphasize action, not subcommittees and studies.

"When you have a supernova, you can either have a black hole or spawn new galaxies," Johnson said. "So there was always a sense of implied urgency."

A sign at CreateHere's old downtown headquarters counted the days until the group's time expired. The goal was to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to make Chattanooga better.

The half-decade of hustle gave "creatives" like Tim Shults the help they needed to pursue their dreams.

From legal advice to business tips, Shults has leaned heavily on the group during his journey from idea to incorporation.

"We probably wouldn't have been nearly half as far as we are now without them," said Shults, who founded deals site Lokewl during the 48-Hour Launch in 2009, an event sponsored by CreateHere offshoot Company Lab.

Shults isn't alone. From Ernie Dempsey's Jobs Ninja to the UnFoundation, brainchild of Bijan Dhanani, the Company Lab helped launch 23 more ventures in the second half of 2011.

"I think it's getting everybody together in the same room -- programmers, designers, people with marketing experience, lawyers -- that makes it a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Joda Thongnopnua, co-founder of the UnFoundation.

INCEPTION

CreateHere traces its heritage to the moment when Johnson, an artist, and McManus, who has a business background, met while working at Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga.

They loved Chattanooga, but there were a few things that they couldn't stand.

Crime was out of control, schools weren't succeeding and the environment, though much improved from the 1960s days of soot-drenched streets, was a concern.

Most of all, college graduates and other creative minds were leaving the city.

But where many organizations appeared content to talk problems to death, Johnson and McManus wanted to do something right away.

"People were willing to recycle or volunteer, but we didn't hear answers that prompted a solution," Johnson said.

Their idea was to get artistic personalities and business minds in the same room, to change Chattanooga from a city that bent steel into a creative oasis.

To do that, Johnson and McManus needed to convince creative people that Chattanooga was a nice place to stay.

So they turned the traditional nonprofit idea on its head.

"Instead of raising money from individuals to invest in institutions, we raised money from institutions to invest in individuals," McManus said. "Politicians aren't as quick to invest in two-person companies because the ribbon cuttings aren't as dramatic, so that's where we came in."

To attract artists, they relocated 27 artists to Main Street. To improve the economy, they persuaded investors to sink more than $800,000 into local startups. To clean up the environment, they planted more than 1,400 trees.

Events like MainX24 attracted more than 5,000 participants to Main Street, which formerly was a no-go zone in Chattanooga.

THE ART OF BUSINESS

The ground-up strategy attracted its own following of new young leaders, including entrepreneur Sheldon Grizzle, who now serves as "air-traffic controller" for the Company Lab, a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs.

Grizzle, along with local entrepreneur Charlie Brock, represent the next generation to carry the CreateHere torch.

They'll continue to run what Grizzle calls the CoLab long after the signs for CreateHere have been taken down, thanks to a Tennessee grant that establishes the group as a "regional accelerator."

The CoLab, which received more than $500,000 in state and foundation grants to continue its work, represents the business offspring of CreateHere.

The artistic side of the group will live on under the MakeWork brand, headed by Kate Creason.

MakeWork supports the estimated 2,224 arts, entertainment and recreation workers in Chattanooga, and has raised more than $300,000 to continue its operations after CreateHere disappears, Creason said.

So far, MakeWork has supported everything from "documentaries highlighting local residents and concerns to new sculptures in public parks and over a hundred local exhibitions and performances," she said.

MakeWork also teaches creative types how to avoid becoming starving artists.

"We have specific plans they can go through on budgeting, making a timeline and studying specific goals," Creason said.

And unlike CreateHere, Creason would like MakeWork to endure.

"We have funding for three years, and we plan to do fundraising beyond that," she said. "We are not planning a supernova."