What's Behind Knight's Investment In a Gary, Indiana Art and Culinary Center? (Hint: "It's The Jobs, Stupid.")

Commenting on the recent developments in Baltimore, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted, "The great sociologist William Julius Wilson argued long ago that widely decried social changes among blacks, like the decline of traditional families, were actually caused by the disappearance of well-paying jobs in inner cities."

It's difficult to argue with Wilson's theory. Regardless of one's race, the absence of well-paying jobs makes it tremendously difficult for poor Americans to realize upward economic mobility. It's a reality that isn't lost on major foundations, many of which spend millions of dollars to boost economic development in inner cities.

One such foundation is Knight, which, followers of its giving will admit, isn't the first entity you think of within the context of urban economic development. Of course, Knight is deeply embedded in many major U.S. cities—Detroit, Miami, and as we'll soon see, Gary, Indiana—but more often than not, the economic development and job creation component of its work is a byproduct of promoting and expanding the arts, creative placemaking, etc.

But news out of Gary suggests the foundation has no qualms in addressing the lack of inner city jobs head-on.

The city of Gary plans to build an arts and culinary center with a $650,000 Knight grant. The project, which is spearheaded by the University of Chicago and Public Life Initiative, has a simple goal best articulated by co-director Isis Ferguson. Knight believes that Gary has "the will to make change," Ferguson said. "It means that Gary has an unemployed population that is ready for work."

The end product is what will be called Arthouse: A Social Kitchen. Gary high school students will be trained at the center, which will include a restaurant. Planners hope the center will create a ripple effect through the community, encouraging other developments to follow.

Needless to say, Knight was impressed enough with the plan to cut a check for close to $700,000. It will be intriguing to keep an eye on major arts funders in the aftermath of Baltimore. Will they pivot toward more straightforward job creation initiatives that nonetheless have some arts-related elements? (If so, nonprofit arts organizations may want to react accordingly.) Or will explicit job creation, particularly in inner cities, be instead framed as a happy byproduct of greater creative placemaking efforts?

Time will tell, but in the meantime, I couldn't help but think of political strategist James Carville's catchphrase during the first Clinton presidential campaign: "It's the economy, stupid." Swap out "economy" with "jobs" and now we're cookin' (pun intended).

Work on Arthouse: A Social Kitchen is expected to begin this summer.