Why did the Midwest fall behind? Why do its big cities continue to lag the top performers nationally? It’s easy to blame this on structural problems, but could the problem simply be a lack of will to compete?
Burgh Diaspora points us at this Time magazine article on Charlotte. As I previously noted about Nashville, Charlotte is a city of high ambition. They look at the boomtowns of the region like Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix and say, “Why not us?” Quoting:
“‘To understand Charlotte, you have to understand our ambition,’ says chamber of commerce head Bob Morgan. ‘We have a serious chip on our shoulder. We don’t want to be No. 2 to anybody.’ Civic leaders often compare their city to New York, Chicago, and even London.”
London? Ok, there’s more than a whiff of hubris in this Charlotte story. They claim to be the #2 banking center, but that only includes commercial banking, and is a heckuva lot less true after one of its two champions, Wachovia, got swallowed up by Citigroup. And their claim to having weathered the housing storm successfully is belied by the fact that Charlotte is ground zero for the edge subdivision turned nouveau slum story.
Still, when you compare it to most Midwestern burbs, the difference in sheer ambition is astounding. Charlotte measures itself against London, New York, and the top cities of the world. Most Midwestern cities other than Chicago and Minneapolis would be happy to be known as the “Star of the Rust Belt”. That’s like saying your ambition is to win the losers bracket in the JV playoffs again this year. The Midwest has, to a great extent, even given up on competing. When I talk to my colleagues in India or Argentina, what strikes me is how hungry they are. These are people who’ve gotten a taste of success and are desperate for more. They want to hit it big and take what they see as their rightful place in the new world order – and they are willing to kill themselves to get there. The most astounding thing to me is the work ethic in India. Here’s a place where it is still dotcom 1999. Anybody on my team there could literally walk across the street for a 30-50% bump. But instead they are in the office Saturdays and Sundays, killing themselves to hit the deadline. Places like Charlotte, Nashville, etc. have a bit of that same attitude. The Midwest, by contrast, sits, as Richard Longworth put it so well of Cleveland, “sour and crumbling”, unable to even muster the will to understand the world it is in, much less complete in it.
Charlotte gets it. As their leaders say, “Charlotte’s nine FORTUNE 500 companies help run the city, not only by writing checks–Bank of America and Wachovia have pledged $15 million apiece to build new cultural centers–but also by helping to write plans. ‘We’re a pro-business city like none I’ve ever seen,’ says Center City Partners head Michael Smith. ‘It’s true about Southern hospitality, but there’s a real hunger here.’ It can be jarring to hear Charlotte’s power brokers explain that it’s important to improve their city not for its own sake but for the sake of its businesses, which need high-quality culture to attract high-quality talent. “
And “While the rest of the country is sinking, Charlotte is soaring, with 28 construction cranes downtown. It’s got the nation’s least-battered metropolitan-housing market, lowest office-vacancy rates and fastest-growing airport. It hosts the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Its center-city population has doubled since 2000, and its light-rail system, just a year old, is already approaching its ridership goal for 2025. Meanwhile, ribbon-cuttings are scheduled for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, three museums, a theater and an African-American cultural center by 2010.”
Again, some of the stories are oversold, but the cumulative effect is real. I’ve been known as a rail skeptic, but regardless, when you decide to do something, do it. Not one comparable city in the Midwest has cranked out a rail system while Charlotte and Nashville put theirs into operation and started remaking their cities to take advantage of them. And a little hubris isn’t bad, when it motivates you to try to live up to your own big talk. In the Midwest, all we ever here from smaller cities is how they can’t compete with San Francisco or New York and have to get by on table scraps. Yet in Charlotte it seems every other person is a transplant from the Northeast. They figured out that they can build an offering that is capable of attracting the right kind of person – if they show a civic ambition that matches the personal ambitions of their target audience.
There’s still room in the club. There is an opportunity out there for one of the smaller Midwest cities to step up and claim their place at the table. But right now it looks like only Chicago and Minneapolis wants it. It’s the parable of the talents, played out in real life. Will anyone else step up? Only time will tell.
PS: One of the top sources of migrants to Charlotte: the Rust Belt.