Thursday, April 1st, 2010
What do you do when your city is falling behind? Well, if you’re a newspaper, you do a major series laying out the issues and the case for change. The Cleveland Plain Dealer did it some years ago with a massive effort called “A Quiet Crisis“. And this week the St. Louis Post-Dispatch does something similar with a three-part series called “Can St. Louis Compete?” The issues discussed are familiar and relevant to any struggling “Rust Belt” type of place, from Buffalo to Birmingham, and thus relevant more broadly. So let’s take a look.
The first installment sets the stage:
For a long time, St. Louis has been falling behind. You know the story. The long, slow drift from grand Gateway to the West to the faded outpost of flyover country. The shuttered factories and the departed corporate headquarters. The bleeding away of the best and the brightest. It’s almost a cliché. But it is true. And it is real. And it is threatening to get worse…Our region is struggling to keep up. Our population is growing slowly. Our work force is aging rapidly. And we have a hard time cultivating the sort of innovators, entrepreneurs and bright minds who will build the economy of the future.
St. Louis lost 60,000 jobs in the last two years. Its working age population is going to shortly start shrinking. It isn’t attractive to top talent. All of these add up to a bad brand image that compounds the problem:
Richard Fleming cast the problem in another light: in terms of jobs that didn’t come here. As president of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, Fleming spent a year just before the recession trying to woo a major employer to open a data center. Fleming wouldn’t name the firm, but said it was “a Fortune 50” company that wanted to hire 1,500 people at good wages. Forty cities wanted the facility, and the company narrowed it down to two finalists — St. Louis and Raleigh, N.C.
The firm’s consultants recommended St. Louis, Fleming said. But the company was worried about the region’s slow growth, concerned that it couldn’t get the workers here it would need over the years to come. “Perception became reality,” Fleming said. “And we lost the deal.”
Jim Russell talks about an “Ann Arbor” dilemma. Ann Arbor has a great economy and lots of amenities and still struggles to attract talent because of its association with Michigan and Detroit. How much more so a city like St. Louis that lacks Ann Arbor’s advantages?
The need is clear: more talent, more jobs, more entrepreneurship, more opportunities, a better brand, etc. The question is, how do you get that?
The Proposed Solution
While the Post-Dispatch is good on diagnosis, they are less strong on solutions. This should come as no surprise. Describing reality is what journalists do. They aren’t turnaround strategy consultants. And this is just plain a hard problem. The role of the newspaper is to put an issue on the public’s agenda, and begin a conversation. It’s looks like they are already having that effect.
The PD wisely recognizes that change is a long term game, but that the city has to start now. Their principal recommendations are in part two, which they title “Finding a Niche.”
The concept of finding a niche is a good one. You need a well tailored target market and value proposition. You can’t be all things to all people in this world and hope to succeed. You’ve got to have unique areas where you can stake your claim. They give one great example that I’ve thought was a good one for some time: plant sciences. St. Louis has set out a goal of being the #1 center for plant sciences. Monsanto is already there. And there is some indication the strategy is working:
With the Danforth center, Monsanto and Washington University, St. Louis is building a strong name in the plant biotech world. Fiorello said he knew scientists who had moved here from hipper towns such as Berkeley, Calif., and San Diego.
“We’re attracting great scientific talent, in spite of our lack of an ocean,” he said. “These men and women are smart enough to know it’s a place where they can advance their careers and do well.”
Unfortunately, beyond this, there was nothing. And in all my reading about St. Louis, I’ve never really heard another compelling suggestion. This says to me St. Louis has big work to do in understanding the realistic sectors it should target. I’ve got to believe there are plenty of areas where St. Louis can compete and win though.
The other suggestions are all garden variety initiatives of the type already widely available elsewhere. St. Louis is cheap, there’s an opportunity to make an impact, etc. Yup, but there and dozens of other places. If that’s your bag, why not move to Kansas City, which has all that plus a much stronger economy and favorable demographics? A “Vanguard cabinet” of young professionals and creatives has been done before isn’t going to move the needle. There is no differentiated value proposition here. I further addressed the talent retention issue yesterday. It’s not so much that retention is bad as that attraction is so much more important, and the lack of attractiveness to newcomers is the real issue.
There was also a suggestion that St. Louis suffers from an undeservedly poor reputation, and that better marketing is a solution. This one is a head-scratcher. If the rest of the series can be believed, St. Louis’ branding problem is that it accurately reflects the situation there. My own look at the data shows it to be among the weakest Midwest performers economically and demographically. Better marketing is always better, but if Ann Arbor is having trouble, don’t expect that better marketing is the solution to what ails St. Louis.
A Foe Unlike Any Other
It’s not surprising that it is so hard to come up with ideas to change the dynamic. The challenge facing St. Louis and other struggling places is a foe unlike any other. It is not amenable to normal “fix it” solutions. It’s not a bleeding wound to staunch. It’s not a broken bone to set. It’s a slow, metastasizing rot.
If you’ll indulge me in a bit of a geeky aside, I’d like to quote from a fantasy novel, Stephen R. Donaldson’s White Gold Wielder, the conclusion of his Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series. In it, the Land is subjected to a terrible scourge, but despite obtaining possession of multiple All Powerful Artifacts, the heroine still isn’t sure how to attack the ill:
It was a strange battle, weird and terrible. She had no opponent. Her foe was the rot Lord Foul had afflicted upon the Earthpower; and without him the Sunbane had neither mind nor purpose. It was simply a hunger which fed on every form of nature and health and life. She could have fired her huge forces blast after blast and struck nothing except the ravaged ground, done no hurt to anything not already lost.
This is a perfect summation of the fundamental challenge facing St. Louis. And not just there. Indianapolis is one the best of performing Midwest cities, but faces similar challenges in its urban core. I myself noted the rot destroying its core. The city has probably invested north of $10 billion in recent decades – firing “huge forces blast after blast” – into its downtown, yet today almost nothing can be built there without major tax subsidies. It has failed to trigger self-sustaining renewal. Any beyond downtown…..
Saving St. Louis, saving the Midwest, saving any struggling city, is more like trying to save a failed marriage than fix a flat tire. The problems are fundamental, like a cancer. And ultimately, most of the time, if self-examination reveals the honest truth, people don’t really want them fixed. They’re invested in their pain.
It reminds me of the “racquet” concept a reader described:
A racquet is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix it. Upon delving into the roots of racquets one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed – the subject of the racquet is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that “no one wants” are not acceptable to the people (the complainers).
The Path Forward
So what do you do?
I’m not going to pretend to issue a detailed workplan to St. Louis, a city I have visited but do not know in depth enough to speak authoritatively on. I would lay out a few general suggestions, though:
1. Address the root causes and make fundamental change. I-70 is a route with several strong cities on it: Denver, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Columbus. What’s different about St. Louis? There are likely many underlying structural and cultural issues that need to be addressed.
The change that is needed is probably not obvious. I think about St. Louis resident and billionaire Rex Sinquefield and his “Show Me Institute”, a libertarian leaning think tank. Their policy recommendations seem to be standard playbook items, mostly targeting state policy. That’s not to say they are all bad – I am a big supporter of land value taxes, for example – but riddle me this: if state policy is determinant in urban success, why the divergence between St. Louis and Kansas City? Sinquefield is pumping $500,000 into a campaign to put a referendum on the statewide ballot that would prohibit large cities from having city income taxes. This would principally affect St. Louis and Kansas City. Yet, if the city income tax is what holds the city back, why is Kansas City doing so well despite its tax?
Perhaps the cold reality is that state policy – maybe even policy, period – really doesn’t matter as much as we think, at least not in a place like St. Louis. If Sinquefield really wants to turnaround St. Louis, he might better spend his money on a crack team of cultural anthropologists, geographers, urbanists, organization theorists, change management consultants, and sociologists rather than producing free market advocacy research that is already readily available elsewhere.
Jim Russell might say that St. Louis is a brownfield and Kansas City is a greenfield. The question is, how to do flip the switch from one to the other?
I’ll make one observation as an area of further study. It strikes me that almost all of the historic major river cities in America have had big problems. Not just St. Louis, but also Memphis, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati and Louisville aren’t doing badly, but have long been growth laggards. Kansas City is on a river, but my general impression is that its roots are as a western frontier town, not a river city. What is it about these river cities? What lessons can be learned? One place to study might be Pittsburgh. While its steel history renders it unique, it appears to be the first true Rust Belt city that is showing signs of having reversed precipitous decline. Some long time span case studies might be in order.
Whatever this uncovers, change won’t be easy and it will take time. It will take courageous leadership and a courageous community.
Jane Jacobs said that “Economic development, no matter when or where it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” Anywhere and everywhere there are lots of people who like the status quo. Many of them even profit from it. And they’ll fight to keep it, even if it means fighting prosperity. Remember the racquet concept.
2. Focus on attracting outsiders. The dynamic of change, of re-igniting greenfield opportunities, almost anywhere is from a flow of outsiders into the system. They aren’t bought into the status quo. Once you have a critical mass of outsiders, really good things can start to happen. I’ve got many ideas on how to attract people, but in the interest of time won’t list them here. This is mission critical.
3. Find your niche. This suggestion was a good one. Plant sciences is one. Now go out and find five more. Again, there are analytic techniques that can help with this.
4. Start small and keep racking up wins. Matthew Mourning had some fantastic thoughts in response to the series along these lines:
We need an open government that involves residents at all turns. We need our elected officials floating ideas about how to improve our city. We need our corporate underwriters to get on board with helping ideas come into fruition.
The ideas don’t have to be literally big–like the NorthSide project or China Air Cargo Hub. In fact, as it relates to development, they should probably be small, organic, and incremental. But there should be a constant stream of ideas to improve our city. [emphasis added]
That’s the way you build momentum. Look at what Janette Sadik-Khan did in New York. Many of her ideas didn’t involve radical, fundamental changes of the whole fabric of the city. Rather, she has kept up a slow, steady pace of innovation: bike rack designs, bicycle tracks, pedestrian plazas, sidewalk sheds, etc. These build on one another to create a dynamic of progress. If St. Louis can start racking up a series of wins one after the next, even if they are small, they can all of a sudden get the wind blowing the other direction.
5. Be authentically St. Louis. Every time I hear about “hip” and “cool” in relation to cities I cringe. Sure, there are legitimately hip places. But is “super cool” really St. Louis’ sweet spot? And even if it could be, would it have staying power or would it, like all fashion trends, prove ephemeral and crash?
St. Louis/Elsewhere pointed us at this video for a mix of the good and bad. It starts out with hipsters bowling. I’d believe there are hipsters who bowl in St. Louis. But about a third of it is devoted to a fashion show. A fashion show? Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a fashion show in St. Louis. But is that really the brand promise of the city? You can’t convince people this is some sort of mini-New York as this video series tries to do. It just doesn’t work.
Click the link above if the video doesn’t show up for you. It’s only one minute.
You’ve got to find the authentic St. Louis and figure out how to sell people on that. I again suggest reading my Indianapolis branding series for suggestions along these lines. But I will tell you that it starts with not being embarrassed about who you are as a city. St. Louis might have its struggles. It might have some cultural traits it needs to change. But I’ve got to believe it has many cultural values that are great and worth preserving and embracing, even if they wouldn’t necessarily appeal to a Manhattanite.
These are just some suggestions to get started. Problems this big don’t get solved in a week. But the Post-Dispatch has started a needed community conversation. Let’s hope they continue pushing that conversation forward regularly over time.