Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Can Your City Compete?

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 Problem

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.

Related – St. Louis:
Reconnecting the City to the River
Gateway Arch Grounds Design Competition
City Garden and the Millennium Park Effect

Related – Talent
The Outsiders
“Brain Drain” vs. “Steel Drain”
The Talent Equation
Rethinking Brain Drain
Getting Serious About Talent

27 Comments
Topics: Civic Branding, Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Globalization, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Talent Attraction, Urban Culture
Cities: St. Louis

27 Responses to “Can Your City Compete?”

  1. Jim Russell says:

    Authentic St. Louis is very interesting. Regionally and mega-regional initiatives focus on similarities, which reinforces the Ann Arbor dilemma. Perhaps this collective mindset is counterproductive.

    Relative to the rest of the Rust Belt, St. Louis cultural geography is outstanding. This is likely the source of the I-70 exception you note. I’m reminded of Pittsburgh’s spectacular “failure”: The talent exodus of the early 1980s.

    Why were those recessions exceptionally bad in Pittsburgh?

    Remarkable shortcomings can reveal comparative advantage. For example, that article about Balkanized St. Louis you cited on your Twitter feed. This political geography is an artifact of Authentic St. Louis.

    I appreciate the need for consolidation, but St. Louis might try to think of its parochialism as an asset instead of a liability. In that jigsaw puzzle might be a novel way for urban economic redevelopment.

  2. Jeff says:

    I am the first to admit St. Louis’ shortcomings, but despite our problems, St. Louis undoubtedly remains one of the richest cities in terms of historic architecture and cultural amenities in the Midwest, and I’d venture to say the entire country. Ranknings and percentages tend to be very one-dimensional, and shouldn’t be taken strictly at face value. There are many other factors that contribute to a city’s vitality beyond “bottom line” figures. Kansas City and Indianapolis may look better on paper, but St. Louis easily outranks both in terms of high culture, institutions of higher learning, medical centers, and my favorite- the built environment. The sense of place in St. Louis is undeniable– our neighborhoods are among the most distinctive in the country, and newer cities like Kansas City and Indianapolis would drool to have one block of what St. Louis has miles upon miles of. Indeed, “average” St. Louis housing and commercial districts are what other cities try so hard to build. I don’t intend to pit city vs. city here, but I think we are entitled to toot our horn in areas where we are way above average.

    Saint Louis is an old, weathered city. For better or worse, our culture is very deeply entrenched. Indeed, it is older than the United States itself, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s certainly not a city for everyone, so take it or leave it. I’ll take it.

  3. George Mattei says:

    One thought that comes to mind is that your future success may be seen through the veil of your past. Take Columbus, where I live. It’s a smaller city than St. Louis, and did not participate in a major way in the manufacturing boom in the early part of the 20th century. Its economy is mostly based on government, education, technology and professional services. These are growth areas. Columbus has Ohio State, Batelle and Cardinal Health in technology. We have Nationwide Insurance, Huntington Bank, and Limited Brands all headquartered here.

    Cleveland, which is much closer to St. Louis in size, has also had growth in these areas. Look at the technology developments spun off of Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic. Progressive Insurance is headquartered there. So are Key Bank, Charter One and, until recently, National City.

    Sound similar, right? If you go back to 1950, the banks were most likely small local banks. Nationwide existed as a much smaller company, as did Batelle and the Cleveland Clinic. I don’t think Progressive existed. The Universities were there but in a much smaller and with different foci. In short, I bet the growth in professional jobs in Columbus and Cleveland haven’t been that different.

    So what IS the difference? Cleveland in 1950 was a MUCH larger city than Columbus. It has lost many manufacturing jobs, and has not had enough professional jobs to compensate. Columbus was quite a minor city in 1950, and has grown to be a much larger city based on that job growth.

    In short, you have to look at job creation AND job destruction as compared to population, and the industries that they are in, to understand who places grow or shrink. If Cleveland had been a 300,000 person city in 1950, people would be talking about how much of a success it is today. But it was a 1 million person city, and now down to less than 500,000, so it’s a post child for the Rust Belt.

  4. Carl Wohlt says:

    I grew up within the St. Louis sphere of influence, and so it’s struggles have always been painful to contemplate. As Jeff 11:16 said, there’s a historic core of good things to build on. But in terms of image and identity, I think there’s a major opportunity that has been overlooked because of the city’s historic connections to the rivers. That opportunity revolves around the city’s geographic location at the doorstep of the Ozarks. There are lots of old cliches associated with the Ozarks and hillbilly culture, but the reality is they are a remarkable natural feature that no other major midwestern city can claim to have ready access to. Ozark hills and streams are beautiful once you get out of sight of anything manmade.

    With each passing day, all things green become ever more critical elements of sustainable economic development — providing a quality of life that attracts talent and good paying industries. I think St. Louis leaders and change advocates should take a good long look at how western cities (Boulder, Denver, Boise, Seattle and Portland among others) have leveraged their natural environments to create a very desirable image — and then begin a dialogue about how the Ozarks can be better leveraged to do the same for St. Louis.

  5. Alon Levy says:

    Well, Columbus has OSU, but St. Louis has Wash U. If Wash U has a few world-class departments in money-generating fields, such as the natural sciences or economics, then St. Louis could try to leverage them to draw jobs in related industries.

    I don’t think the view is that much of a winner. St. Louis’s rivers and hills are not going to draw people from elsewhere. In its own region, it has to compete with Memphis, Louisville, and Cincinnati. Nationally, it’s no more scenic than what Easterners already have along the Hudson and in New England or what Westerners already have in the Sierras and Cascades.

  6. Jim Russell says:

    To piggyback a bit on Alon’s point, being at the foot of the Rockies did little to help Denver’s talent retention. As for outsiders, most misunderstand the climate. For example:

    http://nextgenerationconsulting.com/index.php/library/blog-post/simply-the-best/

    “Those metrics don’t matter!” I protested. If we factored in “average January temperature,” then Chicago and Minneapolis wouldn’t be talent magnets (but they are). Snowfall also doesn’t matter-Hello, Denver and Boston! And don’t even get me started on humidity; have you been to Austin between March and November?

    Talent migration is still mostly a mystery.

  7. George Mattei says:

    In terms of natural features, I live on the first ridge leading into the Appalachian foothills from Columbus. I can see downtown 20 miles away from the end of the street. The Hocking Hills are a great natural area just an hour’s drive from Columbus. But I grew up in Connecticut and I can tell you that it beats the pants off of most places in the Midwest hands-down in terms of natural amenities and charm. Cincinnati may be the exception there.

    In terms of Wash U, that’s exactly the kind of thing St. Louis should build on. But my broader point was that the underlying problem in these larger Midwestern cities is that the manufacturing base is leaving and that it’s difficult to generate enough white collar jobs to replace them. It’s entirely possible that Cleveland, St. Louis, and other cities in the Midwest have generated just as many white-collar jobs than Portland or Columbus or Indianapolis in the past 50 years, but they may need to generate twice as much to stabilize their economies. Portland, Columbus and Indianapolis didn’t have much of a manufacturing base to replace, so every new white-collar job is a new job.

  8. Carl Wohlt says:

    Alon — I think St. Louis faces a long uphill struggle to turnaround its image and identity and to differentiate itself from other struggling Rustbelt cities. It is extremely important that they do so, and it would be foolish to not leverage every possible asset. The scenic and recreational amenities of the Ozarks are significant assets. They may pale in comparison to the Rockies or Appalachians, but anyone who has ever floated the Current River (or other Ozark streams) knows they have beauty all their own. Please don’t tell me that natural features don’t matter when it comes to determining overall quality of life. I’ve had a number of friends who have lived in Boston and the Providence area who raved to me on a regular basis about New England’s natural beauty. I know the natural beauty of the Catskills, Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes region have not brought economic prosperity to many upstate NY communities, but they are positives and integral parts of their respective region’s image and identity.

    Jim — I try to follow your work, and I generally agree the focus should not be on talent retention but the qualities of place that attract talent in the first place. Talent migration may indeed be a mystery, but the question of whether or not St. Louis has an image problem is not, at least to me. Talent attraction only part of the equation — possessing a well regarded brand image and identity helps attract investors, visitors, prestige, resources and respect. In the corporate world, a company’s image and identity are part of its “goodwill,” an accounting item to which a dollar value is assigned every year. It’s not just a nice thing to have or a luxury to be afforded once everything else is in place. It’s a city’s principle calling card to a global marketplace.

    St. Louis needs to do a lot of things — and the proximity of the Ozarks is no panacea — but, moving beyond its existing brand image in the marketplace is pretty important.

  9. Jim Russell says:

    Carl,

    I agree that St. Louis needs to distinguish itself from the rest of the Rust Belt. I’ve read about many communities pitching themselves as Not-the-Rust-Belt (e.g. Baltimore). I would think that almost anyone would agree that St. Louis needs a unique value proposition. Perhaps there is some disagreement about how St. Louis should set itself apart.

    As I see it, the more pressing problem is effectively getting that message/brand out there in a way that influences locational decisions. I’m trying to better understand how that happens. Network migration appears to be the catalyst. I would look to pitch my brand through a few key channels.

    I’ll try to be more concrete and discuss how I would leverage the Ozarks as an amenity. First, map the cultural cache of the Ozarks. Then, track the out-migration from that region. Using some concepts from economic geography, one could figure out a few key destinations and launch a brand campaign in those places where you have potential in-migrants who understand the value of proximity to the Ozarks.

    Because I spent most of my childhood living near the Adirondacks, Schenectady should target me. St. Louis can’t lure me with mountain amenities like the Capital Region can (or Plattsburgh or Watertown).

    Getting information about a place is easy and almost worthless. Getting knowledge about a place is hard, but can drive migration.

  10. Carl Wohlt says:

    Jim,
    It’s my take that placebranding works at essentially two levels. There’s the macrobrand — New York is excitement, Paris is romance, London is finance, etc. Then there are more narrow or micro subsets of the brand promise within cities. The micro and macro are inextricably interconnected and in a constant state of flux. Which is why, as brands, they must be managed — brands are not inanimate objects like logos or slogans. They are more like living organisms that must be constantly nurtured or they die.

    Big cities like St. Louis are invariably known for more than one thing. The macrobrand may be the product of collective subsets — perhaps its the sum of what a number of districts or neighborhoods express as their brand promise and experience. In a scenario like this, part of downtown St. Louis may be known as an entertainment destination, another part as a premier office address for biotech companies within the region. I cannot quantify this, but I believe that once a critical mass of well regarded districts and neighborhoods emerge — ones in which at least one clear brand promise is understood to exist within the marketplace for each subset — then the macro thing follows.

    I think the macrobrand is also influenced by other things such as history, geography, climate and culture. In the case of St. Louis, this might include the value of having essentially a tropical summer climate and being located within close proximity to the Ozark’s amenities.

    Appearance also matters — a lot really. I think most perceptions are formed largely by appearances.

    I think that if, on a neighborhood by neighborhood level, a brand promise could be clarified and expressed, then the kind of targeted campaign you described could really become effective. I also think that for big cities like St. Louis, focusing on neighborhoods instead of the complexities of the city as whole — which can seem overwhelming — is a better way to go. The incremental approach allows for faster successes. And it would also help to focus analysis of migration trends and subsequent recruiting initiatives on more narrowly targeted segments.

  11. Rod Stevens says:

    I have two observations:
    1) Know thyself.
    2) Work your assets.

    The first question is what St. Louis does really well. What professional talk and skills do kids hear at the dinner table? What capabilities do people have real pride in? What adjectives describe both the professional capabilities and the style of doing business? Richard Florida is getting a justifiable knock for writing off the industrial Midwest, but his latest book, “Who’s Your City?” has some fascinating information on city personalities. Birds of a feather flock together, and not everybody want to be a hipster. What kind of people want to move to St. Louis? The people I’ve met from there have real pride in the place, and seem to have some shared personality traits.

    Part 1B of this question is to quit thinking about clusters and start thinking about occupations and skills. What I know about St. Louis is that it’s had machining, brewing, and some other industries that involved complicated production. Some of those jobs have undoubtedly been gone so long that the place has lost the skill base, but fundamentally, what do people know how to do. It’s not who you do it for, it’s what you do. Careful process control is an important skill whether you’re brewing beer or growing lab cultures. In that case “culture is culture”!

    The second point, “work your assets” involves taking pride in and using what you have. Small successes, small victories, each beget bigger ones. St. Louis can’t hope to turn itself around overnight. It needs some small successes it can take pride in. Typically a place that has been failing has a hard time recognizing success, particularly when that success comes not from those who have failed, the big old institutions, but the up-start newcomers, the carpet baggers, or those from the wrong side of the tracks. This is part of the reason that communities go into a spiral of failure. But somewhere out there there are successes, and these should be taken as a symbol of hope. And celebrated, as long as this doesn’t lead to killing them off!

  12. Jim Russell says:

    Carl,

    I like your placebranding construct. It resonates with migration theory. I’m out of my depth concerning marketing and branding. But what you describe makes sense. In fact, it reads like a dialectic of scales.

  13. Jeff says:

    **Reality check** St. Louis is THREE hours from the OZARKS. Natural topography is NOT one of St. Louis’ strong points. We have gentle rolling hills, but we will never have mountains, beaches or a year-round temperate climate. Our biggest competitive advantage is our historic built environment. And we do it better than 95% of America.

  14. Jeff says:

    To add to my point– I don’t think associating St. Louis with the Ozarks would do anything to attract bright young minds to our city. Young progressives are not attracted to the Bible Belt, which the Ozarks region is practically synonymous with. Interesting tidbit– the City of St. Louis voted for Barack Obama by a higher percentage than Brooklyn and Philadelphia (83.7%). We are an island of deep blue in a sea of red. I think distinguishing ourselves from the rest of the state would do a lot more good than celebrating it.

  15. Anon says:

    I feel like you could take the names of several other large metros and drop them in everywhere you’ve written St. Louis. We’ve all got a decent university, a water-front we’re not using, recreational areas within driving distance, and beautiful walkable neighborhoods. We also all have hundreds of thousands of people mired in intergenerational poverty, blighted housing, weather most people don’t like, bad self-images and bad national images. Outsiders and insiders think of the central city as crime, crime, poverty and more crime. And, unfortunately, the statistics are not too far below the perception. The central city’s image is applied to the metro area.

    Do you all remember this item:
    http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1096/community-satisfaction-top-cities

    Here are my suggestions:
    – Everyone one of use needs to think about how intergenerational poverty could be ended. You have your idea, I have mine.
    -Ask yourself, given the economic and political realities of the day, will intergenerational poverty be ended anytime in the forseeable future?
    -If the answer is no, we need a plan B. A way to make our metro areas livable and desirable despite the poverty.
    -The first step is redefining the city. The central city name has to be spread to the MSA or at least the county, so the crime, poverty and education numbers are over a bigger denominator, and are not so horrible.
    -We need to secure at least a few desirable urban neighborhoods so there is somewhere for middle class people to work and visit without being threatened or victimized. In Chicago, New York, DC, this is done by bidding up rents and pricing people out. That’s harder to do in weak real estate markets. Midwest cities will need another strategy.
    -Restructure the local taxation and revenue systems so that key areas, like the CBD and university campuses (1) don’t collapse into chaos for lack of services (2)
    can’t be crippled by taxes used to support all the poor neighborhoods.

    Its unfortunate we have to look for a second-best solution, but educated people have to have hope that the city can be livable and usable, or they’ll just leave poverty-burdened areas behind. If all the educated people are in Denver and Portland, and all the poor stay in St. Louis, whatever your idea is for helping them out of poverty is even less likely to happen.

  16. Alex says:

    I agree with the folks who have indicated that the key issue is inmigration of talent. Without new blood cities become stagnant and fall behind a fast changing world economy. The cities generally cited as good examples in the posts (Chicago, New York) have diverse, vibrant economies, which attract new talent BECAUSE they offer a wide range of highly renumerative professional opportunities. i.e. It is career suicide to move to most of the smaller cities – Kansas City, Indy, St. Louis, that are generally mentioned. No $$$$$, no talent inmigration. Unless that locale has a specialization in your chosen career field so you can earn money and not have to move perpetually. Think Medicine in Cleveland, Technology in Austin. You can have a career there and make alot of money. I personally believe that the path to alot of money needs to be there – middle class wages will not drive talent inmigration. What does a move to St. Louis get you? Few career options and significantly limited career earning potential. I believe the path forward for St. Louis is to focus on using its natural advantages (the built environment is compelling) to catalyze the development of a sustainable industry which is renumerative enough to attract talent. What professions/markets need or prefer a compelling built environment?

  17. Jeff says:

    The medical field in St. Louis is every bit as respected as Cleveland’s. Wash U. medical school is among the top 5 in the country, and Barnes-Jewish Medical Center is consistently ranked as one of the 10 best hospitals in the nation. Like Cleveland, St. Louis is definitely on the map for excellence in medical research and practice. I find it strange that you use Cleveland as a model for St. Louis, considering that the Cleveland metro is bleeding population, while St. Louis’ metro continues to grow, albeit slowly. Most measurable indicators place St. Louis ahead of Cleveland.

  18. cdc guy says:

    This is the best place I can find for this tangent. I’m really tired of reading the implication (repeated again in this thread) that Indianapolis somehow dodged the tough choices because the city wasn’t manufacturing-dependent.

    Indianapolis WAS a manufacturing-dependent city (that’s what brought me and lots of other people here a generation ago, to work in a white collar career associated with manufacturing).

    Indy’s development arc closely resembled those of Cleveland and Detroit through the industrial era, 1870-1970. The old, big smokestack manufacturing companies were HUGE here: GM (3 separate big operations, metal stamping, Allison Engine, Allison Transmission), Ford, Chrysler (foundry and separate factory), RCA (basic TV component manufacturing, plus records at a separate site), International Harvester (foundry and diesel-engine manufacturing), Indianapolis Coke (coke for NW Indiana steel mills), Reilly Tar & Chemical, Indianapolis Rubber, Olin Brass, Jenn-Air, AT&T/Western Electric, Rock Island Refinery, and Eli Lilly.

    Indianapolis also participated in the “great northern migration”. There are significant numbers of children and grandchildren of Appalachian-Americans and African-Americans with roots in the deep south. (Alas, those groups are the faces of our intergenerational poverty problem.)

    Today, only the Allison operations, Reilly, and Lilly survive; everything else is shut down or well on its way. Government, education, healthcare, and logistics/distribution have long since overtaken manufacturing in share of local jobs. The old manufacturing jobs have been replaced.

    Any other Rust Belt Midwestern city could have made the same kind of transition as Indy, but most didn’t. Chicago was spectacularly successful, with the last 15-20 years perhaps owing to its roots in financial markets and commodity trading. Detroit continued to double down on automotive, and that points out the risk of “playing to strengths” when they are susceptible to tectonic shifts.

    I’d submit that for Columbus and Indianapolis, and probably MSP, there is something in NOT being a prisoner of 300 years of river-city history that has promoted positive change. Of course, being a state capital helps, and being the seat of a Big 10/national university also helps. (But if that were everything, where’s Lansing on that list?)

    I’m saying this: Sure, focus on what distinguishes St. Louis. But understand that it is NOT distinguished by any physical or climate feature, as Anon 8:08 wrote. The climate from St. Louis to Cleveland, Cincinnati to Chicago, is essentially the same. Each Midwestern metro has some wilderness within an hour or two. All but Indy and Columbus have big rivers. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have rowhouse-urban neighborhoods. All have serious museums and symphonies and arts establishments.

    Instead, look at the successes and learn from them…as well as the failures. Indy is one model, and it is not an unqualified success (as Aaron has pointed out with his critiques of the “old city” neighborhoods). Perhaps another choice is to do “the painful urban drift” and bleed to shrink without dying, until the job-engines take over, as in Pittsburgh. No leader or politician could stand up and say “let’s do that”, so it happens by attrition rather than direct action. Pitt, Duquesne, and Carnegie-Mellon managed to remain strong (the education and health complex) and eventually emerged as regional drivers after two or three very painful decades.

    Simply falling back on old assets (river, cultural institutions, urban neighborhoods, history) without understanding how they fit in the new world is a recipe for disaster. Just look at Detroit.

  19. Thanks for all the comments.

  20. A couple of thoughts.

    I’m told by Jeff_in_Dayton, who I highly respect in these matters, that Columbus was also a manufacturing city. The point may be less that these cities were never manufacturing cities, but that they were smaller and thus lost fewer total jobs. Though I will tell you when 8,000 people get put on the street as happened when Western Electric closed in Indianapolis, your town feels it.

    Jeff, thanks for bringing up the built environment because you remind that me that I forgot to include my point #6: stop demolishing it. What Matthew Mourning called the “cult of demolition” has to end. St. Louis has to preserve that unique built environment for the future.

    I might take some exception, as others have, that St. Louis has particularly unique amenities. The Cleveland comparison is apt. I have never visited there, but I hear it has good architecture. It is home to the Cleveland Clinic, one of the most prestigious medical centers in America. Its orchestra is one of the most famous in the world. And its museum is top notch. I’m a little puzzled that you’d ding Cleveland based on its stats when you just made an argument that stats didn’t matter for Indy and KC. (For what it’s worth, I agree with you on Indy’s core. And that city is far from perfect). I prefer Cincy’s built environment and geography myself, and they’ve also got top cultural amenities and some quality medical resources (like Cincinnati Childrens Hospital – #3 in the nation with tons of research $$$).

    Those things are all wonderful for St. Louis and of course the city should be proud of them and market them. But culture and such are the product of a dynamic economy. Those institutions and buildings were created in an era when St. Louis was a powerhouse. And they require significant economic firepower to sustain. I’ll point you at this piece which shows what happens to your cultural institutions as you reach the end of your decline road:

    Who Will Save the Arts in Detroit
    http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100328/ENT05/3280313/1320/Who-will-save-the-arts-in-Detroit&&template=fullarticle

  21. Anon says:

    cdc guy,
    You may be right about the loss of manufacturing jobs, but you’re forgetting the other advantage of having the state capital. It is a commitment device. It does not go bankrupt or move. It rarely even downsizes. It will always be there and prevent a collapse of the metro area. In non-capital regions, the possibility of a complete economic collapse has hung over them for decades. This discourages investment.

    Imagine you’re a cold calculating investor, and you have to answer the questions (1) should I buy commercial real estate (2) should I open a local service (i.e. restuarant, shop) (3) should I buy and rehab a home? In places like St. Louis, Buffalo or Detroit, the market trends may very well say *no*. People who do invest in these places are taking a leap of faith – betting the decline will stop with no state gaurantee. Not surprisingly, most people willing to do this are locals with an emotional attachment to the area. Outsiders can move to Indy or Columbus, invest and buy a home with much less downside risk.

  22. Jeff says:

    I was not intending to bash Cleveland– I love Cleveland! I was simply pointing out that it’s silly to say that Cleveland has somehow achieved a sustainable “new economy” industry while St. Louis has not. That’s just not true. St. Louis remains remarkably diversified, and we are a leading center for plant sciences and biotech. We are a slow growth metro area, but we ARE growing nonetheless. Cleveland’s metro, while strong in medical research and other industries, is shrinking. Bottom line– I just feel like it’s not the best model city. Austin, yes- I get it. Atlanta and DC– sure. But I don’t think Cleveland is currently worthy of being considered a city that has figured it out any more so than St. Louis.

  23. Jeff, there’s no doubt that Cleveland is no model of success at present.

  24. cdc guy says:

    anon 11:08, if all of Indy’s growth were simply relocation within Indiana, then I’d grant your government argument. But Indy has long had net domestic in-migration, as Aaron has pointed out.

    ps. I’ve been that calculating investor…but I had to come here first.

    To turn the thread back to St. Louis: how do they get people to go there? Are you implying they can’t get people to go there because the scent of urban failure and lack of government backstop make it too risky?

    If so, then the alumni network–expats and graduates from the area universities–is where they should look.

  25. Jim Russell says:

    Domestic in-migration can come from other parts of Indiana and still count in those robust-looking numbers.

  26. Adam says:

    “You can’t convince people this is some sort of mini-New York as this video series tries to do.”

    i think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. i’ll agree that, in ONE video, they lingered on the fashion show a little too long. however, i think the intent of the series as a whole is to demonstrate life and diversity downtown – the video in question juxtaposes hipsters, foodies, and fashionistas. there’s another video directed at families, one showcasing businesses and new and rehabbed architecture, and one showcasing the amazing City Museum. perhaps this isn’t the greatest ad campaign (is it even an official ad campaign? have these videos been on TV?) but i certainly didn’t get the impression they were comparing saint louis to NYC. i mean, if you limit your advertising only to things that NYC doesn’t do bigger, then you’ve got nothing because NYC does everything bigger than every other city in the US. so i think that’s silly – no offense.

  27. George Mattei says:

    I know Indy and Columbus had a strong manufacturing base in the past. But I doubt their share of jobs to the total for manufacturing was ever as high as Detroit or Cleveland, or even St. Louis.

    Dayton and Columbus are good parallels. They were probably about the same size in 1950. I am willing to bet, though, that Dayton still had a much higher share of jobs in manufacturing. In fact I recall reading somewhere that Dayton still has one of the highest ratios of manufacturing jobs in the nation.

    Columbus grew and Dayton didn’t partially because Columbus is the State Capital and has Ohio State University. There’s more to it than that (the East Lansing reference being a good example) but Dayton never had those assets, so was starting out in 1950 at a disadvantage.

    Now compare this to two other cities, Detroit and Boston. Put OSU in Detroit, and it would have an effect, but not nearly as big, because Detroit is such a large metro. Boston is about the same size metro as Detroit, but it has 60+ colleges and universities in the region. It is one of the few cities that has a higher proportion of students than Columbus. Bottom line is, you would have to add 60+ educational institutions and several hundred thousand students to Detroit to bring it up to the level of Boston.

    The fact that Columbus was a small city with a BIG university made a major difference. It grew. It was able to overpower the losses in manufacturing essentially with one educational institution. Wash U is a great institution, so is Case Western, but these universities are smaller and in much bigger Metros, so their impact as a share of the total economic output is smaller.

    Since most Midwest Metros don’t have an economic engine that contributes such a large portion of their output and is growing, they need to be more strategic. Columbus’ own growth seems to have leveled off somewhat since it has “grown” into OSU’s footprint so to speak. The City is for the first time involved in intensive planning to grow the economy instead of just having accidental economic growth. Indianapolis lacked an OSU, but they did one of the best jobs in the region of economic planning, so in my mind they did with smarts and some elbow grease what Columbus did just with sheer resources. Bigger metros with higher shares of manufacturing jobs AND a larger overall number of jobs will have to work even harder to accomplish what smaller cities like Columbus and Indianapolis did.

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