Competition is fierce among cities that want to attract companies, especially in high tech. When a company relocates, it hires a corporate relocation consultant who chooses between an average of 15,000 contenders (and that’s just in the U.S.). In his work at UNC’s Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, Jim Johnson, a professor of management, helps communities from across the country who want to lure companies.

He recalls one client, Grand Forks, N.D., whose leaders told Johnson they wanted to position themselves as a high tech center. “I asked them what they meant and how they wanted to market themselves, and they said as having strong family values.” Johnson chuckled. “I said, ‘Do you know what these people are like? These are strange people. They sleep in their offices. They’re gay and lesbian.’” In other words, “strong family values” isn’t going to generate a lot of buzz among the creative set.

With so many cities vying for the privilege, relocation consultants are looking for reasons to knock a few off the list, and Johnson says no one wants to move to a place known for intolerance or racial strife. “If you talk about diversity on the face of it, you never get very far,” says Johnson, who studies the way racial and ethnic diversity can help cities develop economically and coaches companies on the issue. “But if you frame it as a competitiveness issue,” then they listen.

The cities that win in the economic game, Johnson says, win for the very reasons that Richard Florida describes in his book. “These communities have a certain character of openness and embracing diversity. New economy workers and firms are consumers of place.” So in order to keep up, cities have to make sure they develop wisely, and don’t turn into giant shopping malls. “They’re looking for place where the quality of life is high. Communities have to get into a different mindset and understand the ingredients of a healthy community — giving away the store doesn’t work anymore.” The model of an ideal community that the Kenan Center developed for its clients looks a lot like the creative center in Florida’s analysis.

Johnson says the Triangle’s talent pool and the interaction between the universities and private firms will keep us high on the list, despite the current recession. “We’re struggling, but everybody’s struggling.”