Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Can Small Rust Belt Cities Survive?

The Wall Street Journal just ran a feature by Jon Kamp on the struggles of small Rust Belt cities, focusing on struggling Springfield, Mass.

The city of 154,000 is about 90 miles west of Boston, too far to double as a bedroom community, and New York City is also remote. For decades, Springfield had chugged along as a dynamo of innovation, with inventions ranging from gasoline-powered cars to adjustable wrenches to the sport of basketball. Now it is among many small and midsize cities dotting the Northeast and Midwest that have struggled to rebound from industrial decline and reap the same benefits as large cities from the U.S. economic recovery.

“We’ve been left out of the red-hot gains that you’ve seen in Boston,” said Eric Lesser, a Democratic state senator from the Springfield region. In Ohio, cities like Dayton and Canton haven’t shown the same hints of momentum of larger peers like Cleveland and Cincinnati, according to the nonpartisan Greater Ohio Policy Center.

A lot of people don’t realize that most of New England is basically Rust Belt. Western Mass is a good example of what I’m talking about.

I’ve long said that as a heuristic you need a million or more people in your region to really be viable in the Rust Belt. (Alternatively, you need half a million if you’re a state capital).

The metro areas with more than a million to a million and a half people have the major airports, thick labor markets, cultural institutions, amenities, etc. to be viable business markets. They also tend to have some corporate HQs or major assets that operate in the tradable sectors. Whatever the challenges in a Detroit or Cleveland, they’ve also got very powerful assets they can point to and build on for their future (large pools of engineering talent, the Cleveland Clinic, etc).

Smaller places have much more difficulty. They are often more purely branch plant towns. They are increasingly losers as success pools in larger places in these shrinking markets.

There are big differences between Detroit and Flint, between the 3Cs of Ohio and places like Youngstown and Toledo.

There are definitely exceptions. College towns like Champaign-Urbana, thriving industrial centers like Columbus, Indiana, etc. As I said, this is a heuristic, not a hard and fast rule.

It also doesn’t seem to apply outside the Midwest and Northeaster Rust Belt. There are plenty of thriving smaller places elsewhere: Provo, Fargo, Chattanooga, Asheville, Lexington, etc.

These small Rust Belt cities face major structural challenges and are a big part of what I’m thinking about these days. We’ve done a decent job at turning around some of the major cities. How can we now look at some of the next tier of places? What can be learned from the ones that are successful?  What can we learn from those who are making big efforts to transform their cities, such as what’s going on in Kokomo, Indiana?

These cities get less media coverage than the bigger ones, but are where a lot of the current urban challenges face us.

from Aaron M. Renn

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