Thursday, July 10th, 2014

A Toolkit for Rhode Island Policy Analysis

Sunday I described how Rhode Island’s fundamental economic problem is that it has been acting like it’s selling a premium product from a structurally advantaged position when in reality it’s selling a commodity product into a highly competitive global marketplace. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t gotten a lot of takers.

Before giving my starter set of action items, I want to provide a brief decision toolkit in the form of a set of guiding principles or questions to help people evaluate any proposed solutions. I won’t pretend this is a totally comprehensive list, but clearly these ought to be front and center.

Here are six questions that should be asked in evaluating policy:

1. What does this proposed policy mean to us, considering our competitive context?. This is where Rhode Island has to swallow hard and recognize that it is not a premium location for business and has start behaving like and making decisions like it’s in a competitive market. That’s gonna be tough, but it’s imperative.

Another way to think of this is my question about how to best embody the values of Rhode Islanders into a contextually appropriate policy set. It may be that in some cases, economic development takes a back seat. For example, Rhode Island is a “must shelter” state for homeless families. That is, families have to be given a place to stay, even a hotel room, if they are homeless. I’m sure this costs a lot of money, but I don’t care. I’d personally be willing to sacrifice some economic growth for this purpose (assuming someone made the case that eliminating this mandate would affect that). On the other hand, is it really necessary for people on temporary disability to be able to double-dip from both their employer and the state administered benefits fund? I don’t think so.

Rhode Island has to ask what the results of a policy will be in the Ocean State, not just how well it worked out in New York, San Francisco, or Seattle. Again, like it or not, the state border is never more than a few miles away, and in today’s globalized economy, localities are at the mercy of the market. As progressive commentator Ramsin Canon put it regarding Chicago:

What we’re feeling viscerally, but seeing from too close to appreciate, is the logical end of decades of neoliberalization of government, which has transformed a managerial state into an entrepreneurial one. Our Mayors are now “entrepreneurs-in-chief,” and the result is that governance has been transformed from a participatory process of pooling resources and regulating behavior for the public good into one of government by private negotiation and enticement of capital through competition between states, cities, and even neighborhoods.
Why not raise property or luxury taxes, or institute a city income tax, to make up the deficit? Why not divert money from the TIF districts? See above; Chicago is no longer a political community, it is an economic entity that is in competition with other cities in the region, in the state, across the world. In that mental framework, tax is cost, or price. You raise prices, you drive away your clients.

Read the full piece for his prescription for change – again from a staunch progressive. Regardless of what we think of current conditions, anyone left or right has to start with an acknowledgement of reality.

In my view this means that in most cases Rhode Island needs to be a bandwagon jumper, not a bleeding edge innovator, on things like green energy and social service levels. Let California experiment with cap and trade or other things, succeed or fail as the case may be, and once there’s a proven model that’s economically efficient, jump on board. It’s like how flat panel TVs were originally the province of the rich, but eventually got perfected and prices collapsed down to where they became the norm. Similarly, when it comes to mandated benefits, if there’s one the state wants, rather than being one of the top five early adopters, wait till a tipping point gets hit (say 25 states) and join in then. Or think of it as a “pick your battles carefully” approach. But always be aware of the competitive context.

2. Is Rhode Island continuously improving at a rate faster than its competitors on a long term, sustainable basis? A second factor to consider is that it took a long time to get into this situation, and it will take a long time to get out. It’s just like losing weight. There is no silver bullet. There is no quick fix. There is no magic pill. We need to make lifestyle changes over the long term to get us where we want and need to be. As local consultant Kevin Hively once put it, “Rhode Island needs to change its diet, not take a shot of 5hr Energy.” And that’s dead on.

The guiding principle here should be: “Continuously improve at a rate faster than your competitors are improving over the long term.” And that’s the second way to evaluate policy proposals. Are they part of a sustainable program of change? Or are they just a flash the pan? Are they a gimmick? And are they improvements that are outpacing the improvements we know every other state is striving to make? Just because it’s better than the state’s past doesn’t mean it isn’t still falling further behind. Rhode Island needs to keep a finger on the pulse of the competition and what it’s doing. But it’s a journey and it’s lifestyle change.

And it needs to be maintained for the long term. Short term upticks can lull us into complacency. For example, as the national jobs picture improves, Rhode Island’s unemployment rate has fallen. But we’ve seen this movie before. Back in 1984 when the Greenhouse Compact failed, its opponent did a jig on its grave when Rhode Island’s economy had a moment in the sun. But it quickly faded and look where the state came to decades later. Rhode Island has to see evidence of improving strength across business cycles, not just following along in the footsteps of the national economy.

3. Is Rhode Island addressing the areas where it is worst in class or otherwise particularly disadvantaged? Since it is a long journey, Rhode Island has to know where to start and where to go next. The state should start where it’s worst in class or where it has things that are particularly causing competitive problems, the things that are directly a burden on job creation and economic growth.

For example, I hear about people wanting to eliminate the estate tax. I’m not a big fan estate taxes, and there were some particular problems with the so-called “cliff” that the legislature did something about this year. But is the estate tax the biggest thing discouraging people from starting a business in Rhode Island? I don’t think so. You have to have earn your estate first before you worry about paying taxes on it.

Similarly, the Republicans have really focused on the sales tax. Rhode Island’s sales tax isn’t low, but it’s not nearly the highest in the country either, especially when local taxes in other states are factored in. It’s almost 10% in Chicago, for example. In response to my City Journal piece, one local free market type said that his reason for advocating a sales tax cut was border arbitrage. But “beggar thy neighbor” policies and border wars are seldom positives over the longer term and generally indicative of “5Hr Energy” thinking. That’s doubly true in this case when Massachusetts has way more ammunition to fight with. The sales tax needs to be looked at competitively, but in a broader context and at a the right time.

On the other hand, Rhode Island has the worst rated unemployment insurance system in the country. That’s a direct burden on business. Places like that are where to start.

4. Is Rhode Island moving toward or away from the right balance between consumption vs. investment spending? Rhode Island government as a whole only spends 4.8% more per capita than the national average. But Rhode Island is well above average in spending on consumption items like social services and very below average in spending on investment items like infrastructure and higher education. Rhode Island spends 52% more per capita on human services than the national average. But it’s 47th in per capita higher education spending and has the 4th worst rated bridges in the nation.

I believe the state has to rebalance away from consumption towards investment. I’m not suggesting that Rhode Island gut its safety net. I’ve personally received government benefits and can attest to their importance. I won’t even say Rhode Island needs to have below average social services. But on a whole range of items it’s in the top five states in America. That’s simply not realistic given the competitive context, financial condition of the state, and the dire need for longer term investment.

But whatever your take, you should come up with a point of view on the right balance, and evaluate policies based on how they adjust the dials towards or away from that target balance.

5. Is Rhode Island promoting and de-risking entrepreneurship and the scaling of local businesses inside the state (vs. targeting large corporations and luring businesses from elsewhere)? Rhode Island needs to remember how it made its money in the first place. It did it through mostly through home grown businesses. It’s the same with other places. The Big Three were founded in Michigan. Most firms in the Bay Area started there – Google, Intel, Cisco, etc. Facebook may have moved, but it was tiny at the time.

So the state needs to adopt that mindset again. It’s going to have to grow its own success stories, and focus on creating an environment that’s conducive to that, not convincing fickle firms from elsewhere to pick it in a site selection. Post 38 Studios, I think that should almost go without saying. And again, the state doesn’t have enough financial ammo to get in bidding wars for business in any case.

CVS is an interesting case study here. It does get subsidies from the state, but fundamentally why is CVS in Rhode Island? Because, although it was originally started in Mass, the founders were from Woonsocket. So they grew it there and now the company has a huge headquarters in the state. Rhode Island needs to build more home grown success stories like that over the longer term.

6. Is Rhode Island setting policies and making investments like an integrated urban region (a city state)? Rhode Island is the city-state. People there say it a lot, but don’t act like it. Instead, all of its 39 cities and towns are treated similarly, and as completely autonomous independent entities, not part of overall urban or metropolitan region.

In the 21st century economy, it’s metropolitan areas, and particularly metropolitan areas of greater than a million people, that are the hubs of economic activity. That’s Rhode Island (aka Metropolitan Providence). That’s good news. That is a structural advantage, but the state isn’t taking advantage of it because it doesn’t make policies like it’s an urban region. Its policies today seem more like it thinks it’s collections of villages in the English countryside.

For example, when the state extends the T to Wickford Jct. and proposes to extend it all way the Westerly, that’s not investing like an urban region. When I hear people pounding the table for why agriculture is so key to the state’s future, that’s not thinking like an urban region. Clearly the tradition of New England towns isn’t going away and that limits what can be accomplished, but it’s important to ask what can be done to move the needle in the right direction.

So those are six questions to ask when assessing policy. In my final installment, I’ll give some specific suggestions for how to get started moving forward.

Full disclosure: I took a couple of these ideas from someone else who I’ll leave anonymous so he or she doesn’t end up guilty by association with me.

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Bye, Bye, Barcelona

City Lab pointed me at this documentary called “Bye, Bye, Barcelona” that describes that city’s increasingly love-hate relationship with tourists as it starts to choke on the sheer volume of visitors, which increased from around 1.7M/yr in 1990 to about 8M in 2013. The city is now the most popular cruise ship destination in the Mediterranean, and up to seven huge ships can dock there simultaneously, disgorging their passengers into Las Ramblas or Sagrada Familia. This video must have struck a nerve as it’s been watched over 200,000 times. It if doesn’t display for you, watch on You Tube.

Here’s a bonus bridge construction time lapse. It’s from Southern Indiana where the bridge across the Ohio River at Madison was replaced by building a new span on temporary piers, demolishing the old span, then sliding the new span onto the old piers. Here’s a time lapse of the slide operation. If it doesn’t display, watch on You Tube.

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Detroit: A Chip Off the Old Bulb by Eric McAfee

[ As some of you may remember from my post on the streetlights of Chicago, I'm a streetlight buff. Detroit's street lights are famously old. A chunk of them date back to at least the 1920s. In this piece Eric McAfee take a closer look - Aaron. ]

Seven months after the announcement, it still seems like the largest municipal bankruptcy filing (at least up to this point) is the stuff of legend—the culminating event, after successive blunders.  The apex.  Or the nadir. No doubt those of us living here are guilty of a degree of chauvinism as we experience how it plays out firsthand, but it’s easy for anyone with even moderate media curiosity to see how much the city has hogged the headlines.  It may be for all the wrong reasons, but Detroit is prominent once again.

Yet it was only weeks—if not days—after the declaration made international news that, in order to convey to the world the magnitude of the city’s financial woes, journalists honed in on more mundane failures—failures that, by virtue of their banality, were all the more shocking.  Locals have known about them for ages.  A portfolio of abandoned public school real estate larger than many cities’ functional school systems.  An absence of snowplows, even after heavy storms.  A stonewall of silenced civil servants, hogtied from effectively carrying out duties by daily uncertainty about the security of those same jobs.  The virtual absence of any emergency response, resulting in two-hour waits for an ambulance or a police call.

But the one that crowds out the rest, no doubt at least partially due to its ubiquity and ordinariness, is the persistent non-functionality of those streetlights.  One of the editorialists for the Free Press has branded it “the city’s deepest embarrassment”.  By most estimates, up to 40% are out on any given night.  Anyone passing through can tell when crossing into the city limits for this exact reason: even huge stretches of the interstates are black, although they’re state or federal highways.  It’s hard to determine if these shadowy streets originate from a cash-strapped DPW’s inability to replace the bulbs—which obviously require periodic maintenance—or an oversight that far precedes the checkered Kilpatrick administration, when the city’s fiscal woes first garnered national attention.  All it takes is a trip down Mack Avenue on the city’s east side to postulate that the problem is a half-century in the making.

Silhouettes of streetlights punctuate the dusky penumbra, but even at a distance, the shape of these lights seems odd.  Antiquated?  Probably.  And a closer view confirms it.

To be frank, I can’t recall seeing lights like this before anywhere else in the country, and I’m well-traveled across some of the more economically deprived pockets.  From the baroque iron filigree work of the stanchion to the acorn shape of the light itself, my guess is this streetlight comes from an inventory that most cities had fully retired over three decades ago.  And there’s probably good reason for that: this one is broken.

And so is another one half a block away.

About half of the lights along this stretch of Mack use this design, and most are cracked.  A big distended bulb offers more surface area encased in glass—more space for something to wrong.  Whether hit by flying debris hit or (my suspicion) deliberately smashed by a passer-by, this streetlight is almost definitely non-operational.  And the visible hardware is only half the problem: inside that quaint, clunky bulb (your grandmother’s streetlight) is—or was—a mercury vapor lamp. Detroit is one of the few cities that still depends heavily on this less efficient, increasingly obsolete method of illumination; most other large cities have replaced their inventory with superior metal halide lamps.   USA Today also noted that Detroit and Milwaukee share the dubious distinction of being the only large cities that still deploy series circuits for much of the streetlight network, meaning that if one transformer box breaks down, the whole strip of lights goes dark, like an old string of Christmas tree lights.  While the Mack Avenue streetlight featured above remains attached to a wood, other lights in the city append to metal poles, presumably the same age as the lights themselves, characterized by rust, peeling paint, and sometimes even open cavities at the base.  The whole contraption has seen better days.

But viewing these cracked eggs through a cultural lens can help temper some of the scorn.  They might not work well as modern lamps and they’re much easier to vandalize, but they’re relics—they’re curiosity items.  And they’re particularly eye-catching along Mack Avenue because there are so many of them, yet they’re still interspersed with more contemporary designs.  This cool pic doesn’t win awards for clarity, but it still shows the juxtaposition of old and new streetlights, through their silhouettes.

Or on opposite sides of the street.

And on a depopulated residential street not so far from Mack, a different kind of lighting style emerges—perhaps not as old-fashioned but still an oddity.

Perhaps a style and technology that never caught on?

The irony of the 1950s-era (or maybe even 1940s) lighting that lingers on in Detroit is that, in a broader spatial context, it exemplifies technological advancements playfully defying shifts in taste culture for a particular design.  On Mack Avenue, ancient streetlights bespeak a broke, ineffective government.  And yet, elsewhere in the metro, they convey something else.

Forgiving the quality of the photo, it’s still easy to see a similar style of lighting to the ones on Mack Avenue, but this time they’re impeccable.

But this is the comfy suburb of Livonia, presumably part of a streetscape improvement along a thoroughly auto-oriented corridor of strip malls and big boxes.  And they no doubt were a deliberate choice from the Public Works Department because they look good—providing a vintage, old-timey feel.  Apparently they don’t worry in Livonia about ne’er-do-well pedestrians throwing rocks at these distended bulbs.  Maybe it’s because Livonia has few ne’er-do-wells….and even fewer pedestrians.  But even some of the economically healthier neighborhoods within Detroit have caught the bug, replacing older streetlights with a newly vintage design, like these twin lamps in Midtown, near Woodward Avenue.

This inversion of taste cultures pervades streetscapes across the country, where everything old is new again, in order to exploit nostalgia among a generation that never really experienced a normative walkable environment—a landscape that was still the standard during the era when city crew first installed those acorn mercury vapor lamps.  We’re seduced by nostalgia and novelty; a hybrid of the two is doubly sweet.  Just go to the French Quarter in New Orleans, where a city equally negligent in modernizing its utilities now capitalizes on this same inertia—the flickery gas lanterns that once were a backwater embarrassment are now ambiance.  Detroit isn’t yet so lucky to take similar advantage of its obsolete lighting (and the fact that most streets like Mack are a hodgepodge of styles doesn’t help), but that doesn’t mean that an emergent cultural voice won’t someday call those lights “genuine retro”, and the preached-upon choir will be listening.

The periodic “freshening” of basic urban infrastructure is only partly due to necessity, as it may very well be in Detroit.  But a great deal simply has to do with keeping up with the joneses, resulting in often needlessly costly capital investments.  For example, the standard for pedestrian signals at intersections now typically involves a “countdown” timer, telling pedestrians exactly how many seconds they have left to cross.  While useful, are these timer boxes essential?  Regardless, public works departments are rapidly phasing out the single-box approach for these new timer-boxes, with little evidence of public advocacy one way or another (despite the fact that the public inevitably is paying for most of these replacement costs).  From decorative viaducts to Day-Glo yellow road caution signs, jurisdictions hell-bent on an infrastructural one-upmanship should look to Detroit as an inverse exemplar—what might happen when profligacy goes perpetually unchecked.  Unless, of course, these granny-and-gramps streetlights become hip and cool again, in which case the Motor City might have the last laugh.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on February 27, 2014.

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Ruining Rhode Island – Missing the Context

My latest article is online over at City Journal, and shows how Rhode Island has become an economic and demographic basket case, one not making headlines largely because the state is small enough to fly under the radar. I’ll give you a trigger warning on this one. While making clear that the Republicans of Rhode Island have hardly crowned themselves in glory, I focus on the follies of the Democrats who have had overwhelming control in the state since 1935. If you don’t want to read this one, try one my previous posts about the Tea Party instead. You can also read a response from the left at RI Future.

In my article, titled “The Bluest State,” I attribute the state’s failure to poor governance and corruption (bi-partisan), a complacent populace, and far left policies that have imposed top 5 or top 10 levels of high taxation, high service/low investment spending priorities, stifling regulations, and very powerful public sector unions on a state radically unsuited to them.

The response by some in Rhode Island was to say that while the legislature is controlled by Democrats, they are conservatives, not progressives. Or pointing out Republican failures like Gov. Don Carcieri. I have a very simple reply to that. If the policies of Rhode Island are indeed conservative, then progressives should have no problem rolling back the taxes and regulation, rebalancing spending, and curtailing union abuses there. Welcome aboard.

In any case, the macro problem is that this collection of policies was implemented in a place completely unsuited for them. The ideas were imported from elsewhere and implemented in a way that ignores the context. I plan to explore that in a three part series starting today. This post will be about the competitive context of Rhode Island. Thursday I’ll lay out a “decision toolkit” of questions that can be used to evaluate any proposed policies there. And next week I’ll give some very specific recommendations in the form of an expanded and more detailed list from my article.

Let’s start with the context. That’s something that’s really been missing from the Rhode Island discussion and is absolutely critical – because without the context, you can’t really property evaluate any proposed solutions to the economy.

I want to start by going back to the Slater Mill in Pawtucket 1793. Why did America’s industrial revolution begin in Rhode Island? There are a lot of reasons. We were a coastal country, and Rhode Island was on the coast. Rhode Island was right in the middle of that Northeast Corridor from Philadelphia to Boston that was far more dominant then than it is now. So Rhode Island was in the middle of the action – it was centrally located. It was an era of water transport and power, and Rhode Island had the seaport access, and numerous small rivers it could dam for power. It was in the intellectual center of America, and had a freethinking culture that was open to the new and the different. And once the first mill was built, Rhode Island had first mover advantage in the marketplace.

So in a sense where else in America other than New England could this have happened? Not too many places. You couldn’t have done textiles in North Carolina back then because their entire economy and culture was a slave based agricultural economy, for example. It would have been a non-starter.

So what we see is that Rhode Island and New England had major structural competitive advantages that let them initiate and then dominate the early stages of the industrial economy in America. It was like Detroit in cars, or Silicon Valley in tech today.

Fast forward a hundred years to the 1890s, and that’s when Rhode Island’s textile base began to erode. What happened in that hundred years that caused this change? Well America was a very different place in the 1893 than 1793. Instead of a coastal nation we were a continental nation. Rhode Island was no longer centrally located, it was on the periphery. The primary transport mechanism was no longer ship, it was rail. Power was no longer water, it was coal, steam, and electricity. Slavery was abolished in the South, and they had to find something else to do. Religious freedom and free thinking ways were no longer the exclusive possession of Rhode Island. And as a consequence of these changes, Rhode Island no longer had a structural competitive advantage or fortress position in the industrial marketplace. Instead, it was subject to something it didn’t have originally, and that was competition. This newly competitive environment posed – and still poses – particular challenges for Rhode Island because it is so geographically small and thus border arbitrage is easy.

What Rhode Island needed to do was to recognize that its circumstances had changed, and that it need to start acting like it was in a very competitive market instead of one in which it held all the cards. That would have been difficult in the best of circumstances candidly. But it didn’t do that. And I’d argue that’s true up to the present day. And it’s easy to understand why. Rhode Island had a 100 year run in a market dominant position. Keep in mind, Detroit only had 60 years of success and dominance in autos, max. Rhode Island had a hundred years of industrial dominance, and successful merchant trading and such industries before that. So clearly that stamps the thinking of a people. It has to. But nevertheless, the situation has changed.

And that, fundamentally, is the most important thing to understand about Rhode Island’s condition. It’s been acting like it’s still selling a premium product from a structurally advantaged position like it was at the beginning, when it’s actually selling a commodity product into a highly competitive global marketplace. It’s been trying to sell a commodity product at a premium price point in terms of costs, taxes, regulation, etc. and unsurprisingly hasn’t gotten a lot of takers. The stone cold reality is that with limited exceptions, Rhode Island has no marketplace leverage. One might blame this on federal level neoliberal policies, but that doesn’t make reality any less real for the Ocean State.

The state hasn’t recognized its problem of trying to sell a commodity at a premium price point. That’s for several reasons. First is that the policies that are intended to embody Rhode Island’s values were imported from other places that have radically different conditions. Rhode Island is a state with progressive values. There’s nothing wrong with those values and in fact I share many of them. But where do the policy ideas that instantiate progressive values come from?

To just pick an area that’s been a debate in the gubernatorial race, every Democratic candidate has pledged to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10/hr, which would be the highest statewide level in the country. Where did that idea come from? Did it originate in Rhode Island? I don’t think so. So the question we need to ask is where did it originate, and what are the conditions like there?

I’d argue most progressive policy ideas come from three primary places: San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC. And if you look at those cities, or other progressive capitals like Boston, what you see is that they are like Rhode Island was back in 1793. They have a structural competitive advantage in the marketplace because they have captive, high value industries that are bound to the geography where they are located, operate at global scale, and spin off huge amounts of cash. Wall Street prints money and it isn’t going anywhere. Silicon Valley isn’t going anywhere. Speaking of printing money, the federal government literally prints it and is not pulling out of DC. Harvard and MIT aren’t moving out of Greater Boston. These places have cash registers that never stop ringing. So those cities can get away with doing things Rhode Island can’t because it no longer has those fortress industries like they still do today. So the state has been importing policy ideas from places that are nothing like Rhode Island.

That includes the rest of New England. If you pan back the lens, what you see is that there are really only two poles of wealth in New England. One radiating out of Boston. The other out of New York City into Connecticut. To the extent that you’re able to tap into Boston or New York money, you’re doing pretty well. To the extent that you’re not, you’re likely as bad off as Rhode Island. Most of Massachusetts, its so-called Gateway Cities and all that, are exactly like Rhode Island. Connecticut is chock full of struggling industrial cities like New Haven and Bridgeport. Even their white collar economy is in trouble.

The states of Massachusetts and Connecticut only are able to do what they do because of the high value they capture in Boston and places like Greenwich and Stamford. Even New Hampshire similarly is almost entirely dependent on access to Boston money. Rhode Island simply looks worse, because it has less access to New York and Boston money than those other states.

That’s where I’ll actually defend Rhode Island’s leadership. In a previous article, I argued that Rhode Island’s problem isn’t poor leadership. I’d like to qualify that. Rhode Island has indeed been poorly governed, and that’s a problem. But it hasn’t had uniquely bad leadership. Some people like to say that the problem is Rhode Island’s leaders are stupid whereas those in other states are smarter or less venal. I don’t think that’s the case. Three House speakers in a row got indicted in Massachusetts. But you can get away with things in Massachusetts that you can’t in Rhode Island because of the Boston area economy. It’s like Warren Buffett said: when the tide goes out we get to see who’s been swimming naked. The tide went out on Rhode Island a long time ago whereas some other places have been luckier in that regard.

This is a painful reality for the state because Rhode Island takes its cues from its neighbors. But they’re richer. It’s like three brothers, one’s a doctor, one’s a lawyer, and one’s a teacher. The teacher isn’t going to be able to live in as a nice a house as his brothers. That’s just financial reality. And that’s the situation Rhode Island is in. Because neighboring states have access to money from fortress industries. Rhode Island doesn’t. They’re market makers; Rhode Island is a market taker.

Another aspect of missed context is that Rhode Island has over-estimated its quality of life advantage. It really struck me when I was living there that the idea that Rhode Island has a markedly superior quality of life to other places is just sort of taken for granted. It’s a bedrock axiom. I think the quality of life is good in Rhode Island. I’m not going to criticize it. And I think that the assumption of superiority actually was true not that long ago.

But I visit a lot of places, and I can tell you, America has really raised its game in the last two decades. I live Indianapolis now, and when I first started spending time there back in the early 90s, to be honest, it was like Siberia. You wouldn’t want to live there unless you were from there. Today, it’s completely different. Indianapolis has more and better microbreweries than Rhode Island, better coffee, pretty good restaurants – not as good as Rhode Island’s but definitely serviceable – a big farm to table movement, their own local fashion magazine – I mean like a real print magazine – and a lot more. It’s night and day.

Rhode Island hasn’t fully woken up to how much better life has gotten in a lot of places you never would have considered living before. There’s a new level of competition out there that was never there before.

Add it up and Rhode Island needs to have a big mindset shift. My observation is that candidly, it’s had an entitlement mentality. I attribute that to three sources I talked about above:

One is Rhode Island’s rich historic legacy which is a justifiably proud history. Part of that legacy is its history as a highly competitively advantaged economy in the past. But that history can blind the state to the reality of today, which is very different.

Two is that Rhode Island feels entitled to live like its neighbors, its brothers if you will, in New England, when they’ve got better jobs.

Three is that Rhode Island hasn’t recognized the extent to which other places have improved their quality of life such that its advantage is much slimmer than it realizes.

Rhode Island has to realize that it is not entitled to live like it used to or like California lives today. And that’s tough to accept. In America especially, with this deep seated narrative of economic progress, regression is a bitter pill to swallow. We’ve seen the results of that in post-industrial America across the board.

That doesn’t mean rejecting every progressive idea. It does mean assessing what makes sense for the state in light of its weak marketplace position. The values of Rhode Islanders have to be embodied in a policy set that makes sense with its own economic competitive context, not somebody else’s.

The problem here is that there’s hasn’t been indigenous R&D to create locally appropriate policies. That’s actually one reason I started my site so many years ago when it was focused on smaller Midwest cities. Those cities were – and sadly still are for the most part – passive importers of ideas about what cities should be. I wanted to start a conversation about Midwest cities on their own terms. I’m all in favor of stealing good ideas from anybody, even NYC. But you have to ask whether it makes sense locally and how to do it. And also be developing your own “in-house” ideas as well. That’s what I set out to do with this site.

So if Rhode Island wants to perform differently, it needs to create an indigenous R&D capability, especially as most national progressive ideas emanate from elite citadels, which Rhode Island is not. This will be hard because to many of Rhode Island’s intellectual elite came from places like New York and Boston, and thus are steeped in that way of thinking.

But I have an idea. There are a lot of people in Rhode Island who are heavily involved in boosting the fortunes of developing counties. Would they go into a developing country and say that the leaders there should adopt California style taxes, services, and regulations? No way. They’d realize that these places need to start with where they are at. The immediate needs in many places are better governance (esp. less corruption), basic services like clean water and sanitation, education, upgrading infrastructure, and facilitating economic development. Rhode Island isn’t a developing country by any means, but it’s not California or New York either. No matter how much people in Rhode Island might be in agreement with the values or policies of those places, the state is simply in a completely different situation. It needs to focus on the basics. So maybe those Rhode Islanders who are involved in developing country work can try to think about Rhode Island through that lens to see what ideas can be generated. Again, Rhode Island is NOT a developing country, but there may be things that can be learned.

The good news is that change is possible. Though Rhode Island has huge problems and a long road back to recovery, I believe there’s certainly a lot of room to believe that it can be a lot more successful than it is. I’ll delve into the specifics of a starter program in the next two installments.

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

Do Cities Really Want Economic Development?

My latest column is online in the July issue of Governing Magazine. It’s called “Do Cities Really Want Economic Development? My conclusion is that in all too many places, the answer is No. The status quo is actually preferred, no matter what people might say.

All we have to do see this is to apply Occam’s Razor to the condition of our cities. What’s the simplest explanation that explains the facts? In any number of places, if you just assume that civic leaders and maybe the broader community itself actually want the place to go down the tubes or at least stay the same, everything else falls into place.

Now it may be that this is really an emergent property of the social system rather than intentional. What’s that saying? “The system is producing precisely the results it is designed to produce.” Maybe Abilene Paradox style, no one really wants the city to fail but collectively everyone ends up choosing decline. But then you see so many examples of crookedness, cronyism, criminality, and self-dealing that pop through into the public view, and the benefit of the doubt starts to crumble.

In any case, here’s an excerpt:

Economist David Friedman once told this joke: “Two economists walk past a Porsche showroom. One of them points at a shiny car in the window and says, ‘I want that.’ ‘Obviously not,’ the other replies.” That is, if the first economist had really wanted the Porsche, he would have bought it. Our choices tell us more than our words about what it is we really want.

Problems are problems, but they are also sometimes solutions to certain sets of questions. One of these is how to mobilize, allocate, and deploy community resources and power. Fighting decline has become the central organizing principle in many places.

Jane Jacobs took it even further. As she noted in The Economy of Cities, “Economic development, whenever and wherever it occurs, is profoundly subversive of the status quo.” And it isn’t hard to figure out that even in cities and states with serious problems, many people inside the system are benefiting from the status quo.

They have political power, an inside track on government contracts, a nice gig at a civic organization or nonprofit, and so on. All of these people, who are disproportionately in the power broker class of most places, potentially stand to lose if economic decline is reversed. That’s not to say they are evil, but they all have an interest to protect.

Consider one simple thought experiment: If a struggling community starts booming, that would eliminate a big part of the rationale for subsidized real estate development, which constitutes the principal form of economic development in all too many places, and which benefits a clear interest group. It might also attract highly motivated, aggressive people from out of town, folks who are highly likely to agitate for better than the current inbred ways of doing business. This would inherently dilute the positions of the current powers that be.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Hello, Calgary!

City slogans and songs are notoriously cheesy and no one locally even likes them. Ira Glass of This American Life heard that there was an exception to this rule in Calgary. The first segment of this show below is the almost unreal story of what happened when they looked into this. There’s a short promo at the beginning to get through first. If the embed doesn’t display, listen at the show’s web site.

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

The Changing Face Of Chicago (1963)

You’ve no doubt seen many posts already about the 80,000 vintage newsreel type videos uploaded to You Tube by British Pathé. The biggest challenge with these is that no human being can possible process that quantity of material. But it’s fascinating and you could probably spend many a day watching these things.

I’ll share a few highlights today focused on Chicago. First, one I found via Ben Schulman. It’s a 1963 video called “The Changing Face of Chicago” and can be viewed on You Tube if the embed doesn’t display.

Listening to the narrator brag about the “27 urban renewal projects under construction” can inspire perhaps horror or laughter. But what it should spark is humility. I’ve little doubt that 50 years from now, the many earnest urbanist videos and policies put forth with equally as much dogmatic fervor and certainty will be the subject of future generations’ puzzlement. My own blog may perhaps be an exhibit.

We need to have a sense of meta-narrative about progress. By that, I mean that we not only need to understand the ways in which we’ve changed or grown vs. the past, but also keep an awareness that we’re not done yet and that in the future we will have gone beyond where we are now. We should never commit the fallacy of believing we’ve reached the apex of our understanding in the present.

Whet Moser also put together a collection of Chicago entries over at Chicago Magazine.

Here’s a fun one of his from 1939 called “Chicago Cycles.”

Here’s one from 1922 (silent) of riots in Chicago with police arresting “anarchists.”

And from the some things never change file, video of a 1938 snowstorm.

There’s plenty more so search and enjoy.

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

Confessions of a Rust Belt Orphan by Jason Segedy

[ I originally found this post by Jason Segedy at Rust Wire. Thanks to him for letting me share it here. His web site is "Notes From the Underground" and you can also follow him on Twittter at @thestile1972 - Aaron. ]

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Northeast Ohio

Image Source: Wikipedia: Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954-2002. Dark red is very bad. Akron is dark red.

Go to sleep, Captain Future, in your lair of art deco
You were our pioneer of progress, but tomorrow’s been postponed
Go to sleep, Captain Future, let corrosion close your eyes
If the board should vote to restore hope, we’ll pass along the lie

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

As near as I can tell, the term “Rust Belt” originated sometime in the mid-1980s. That sounds about right.

I originated slightly earlier, in 1972, at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World. My very earliest memory is of a day, sometime in the Summer of 1975, that my parents, my baby brother, and I went on a camping trip to Lake Milton, just west of Youngstown. I was three years old. To this day, I have no idea why, of all of the things that I could remember, but don’t, I happen to remember this one. But it is a good place to start.

The memory is so vivid that I can still remember looking at the green overhead freeway signs along the West Expressway in Akron. Some of the signs were in kilometers, as well as in miles back then, due to an ill-fated attempt to convert Americans to the Metric system in the 1970s. I remember the overpoweringly pungent smell of rubber wafting from the smokestacks of B.F. Goodrich and Firestone. I recall asking my mother about it, and her explaining that those were the factories where the tires, and the rubber, and the chemicals were made. They were made by hard-working, good people – people like my Uncle Jim – but more on that, later.

When I was a little bit older, I would learn that this was the smell of good jobs; of hard, dangerous work; and of the way of life that built the modern version of this quirky and gritty town. It was the smell that tripled Akron’s population between 1910 and 1920, transforming it from a sleepy former canal-town to the 32nd largest city in America. It is a smell laced with melancholy, ambivalence, and nostalgia – for it was the smell of an era that was quickly coming to an end (although I was far too young to be aware of this fact at the time). It was sometimes the smell of tragedy.

We stopped by my grandparents’ house, in Firestone Park, on the way to the campground. I can still remember my grandmother giving me a box of Barnum’s Animals crackers for the road. She was always kind and generous like that.

Who were my grandparents? My grandparents were Akron. It’s as simple as that. Their story was Akron’s story. My grandfather was born in 1916, in Barnesboro, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, somewhere between Johnstown, DuBois, and nowhere. His father, a coal miner, had emigrated there from Hungary nine years earlier. My grandmother was born in Barberton, in 1920. Barberton was reportedly the most-industrialized city in the United States, per-capita, at some point around that time.

They were both factory workers for their entire working lives (I don’t think they called jobs like that “careers” back then). My grandfather worked at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company. My grandmother worked at Saalfield Publishing, a factory that was one of the largest producers of children’s books, games, and puzzles in the world. Today, both of the plants where they worked form part of a gutted, derelict, post-apocalyptic moonscape in South Akron, located between that same West Expressway and perdition. The City of Akron has plans for revitalizing this former industrial area. It needs to happen, but there are ghosts there…

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

My grandparents’ house exemplified what it was to live in working-class Akron in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My stream-of-consciousness memories of that house include: lots of cigarettes and ashtrays; Hee-Haw; The Joker’s Wild; fresh tomatoes and peppers; Fred & Lamont Sanford; Archie & Edith Bunker; Herb Score and Indians baseball on the radio on the front porch; hand-knitted afghans; UHF/VHF; 3, 5, 8, and 43; cold cans of Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon (back when the pop-tops still came off of the can); the Ohio Lottery; chicken and galuskas (dumplings); a garage floor that you could eat off of; a meticulously maintained 14-year-old Chrysler with 29,000 miles on it; a refrigerator in the dining room because the kitchen was too small; catching fireflies in jars; and all being right with the world.

I always associate the familiar comfort of that tiny two-bedroom bungalow with the omnipresence of cigarette smoke and television. I remember sitting there on May 18, 1980. It was my eighth birthday. We were sitting in front of the TV, watching coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State. I remember talking about the fact that it was going to be the year 2000 (the Future!) in just twenty years. It was an odd conversation for an eight year old to be having with adults (planning for the future already, and for a life without friends, apparently). I remember thinking about the fact that I would be 28 years old then, and how inconceivably distant it all seemed. Things seem so permanent when you’re eight, and time moves ever-so-slowly.

More often than not, when we visited my grandparents, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen would be there. Uncle Jim was born in 1936, in West Virginia. His family, too, had come to Akron to find work that was better-paying, steadier, and (relatively) less dangerous than the work in the coal mines. Uncle Jim was a rubber worker, first at Mohawk Rubber and then later at B.F. Goodrich. Uncle Jim also cut hair over at the most-appropriately named West Virginia Barbershop, on South Arlington Street in East Akron. He was one of the best, most decent, kindest people that I have ever known.

I remember asking my mother once why Uncle Jim never washed his hands. She scolded me, explaining that he did wash his hands, but that because he built tires, his hands were stained with carbon-black, which wouldn’t come out no matter how hard you scrubbed. I learned later, that it would take about six months for that stuff to leach out of your pores, once you quit working.

Uncle Jim died in 1983, killed in an industrial accident on the job at B.F. Goodrich. He was only 47. The plant would close for good about a year later.

It was an unthinkably tragic event, at a singularly traumatic time for Akron. It was the end of an era.

Times Change

My friend Della Rucker recently wrote a great post entitled The Elder Children of the Rust Belt over at her blog, Wise Economy. It dredged up all of these old memories, and it got me thinking about childhood, about this place that I love, and about the experience of growing up just as an economic era (perhaps the most prosperous and anomalous one in modern history) was coming to an end.

That is what the late 1970s and early 1980s was: the end of one thing, and the beginning of a (still yet-to-be-determined) something else. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s because I was just a kid.

In retrospect it was obvious: the decay; the deterioration, the decomposition, the slow-at-first, and then faster-than-you-can-see-it unwinding of an industrial machine that had been wound-up far, far, too-tight. The machine runs until it breaks down; then it is replaced with a new and more efficient one – a perfectly ironic metaphor for an industrial society that killed the goose that laid the golden egg. It was a machine made up of unions, and management, and capitalized sunk costs, and supply chains, and commodity prices, and globalization. Except it wasn’t really a machine at all. It was really just people. And people aren’t machines. When they are treated as such, and then discarded as obsolete, there are consequences.

You could hear it in the music: from the decadent, desperately-seeking-something (escape) pulse of Disco, to the (first) nihilistic and (then) fatalistic sound of Punk and Post-Punk. It’s not an accident that a band called Devo came from Akron, Ohio. De-evolution: the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society. It sounded a lot like Akron in the late 1970s. It still sounds a little bit like the Rust Belt today.

As an adult, looking back at the experience of growing up at that time, you realize how much it colors your thinking and outlook on life. It’s all the more poignant when you realize that the “end-of-an-era” is never really an “end” as such, but is really a transition to something else. But to what exactly?

The end of that era, which was marked by strikes, layoffs, and unemployment, was followed by its echoes and repercussions: economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment; as well as the more intangible psychological detritus – the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation; the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.

And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time

As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

It sung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said

But it is both our tragedy and our glory that life goes on.

Della raised a lot of these issues in her post: our generation’s ambivalent relationship with the American Dream (like Della, I feel the same unpleasant taste of rust in my mouth whenever I write or utter that phrase); our distrust of organizations and institutions; and our realization that you have to keep going, fight, and survive, in spite of it all. She talked about how we came of age at a time of loss:

not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood. One of the people commenting on her blog post said, essentially, that it is dangerous to romanticize about a “golden age”; that all generations struggle; and that life is hard.

Yes, those things are all true. But they are largely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is a very large middle ground between a “golden age” and an “existential struggle”. The time and place about which we are both writing (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) is neither. But it is undoubtedly a time of extreme transition. It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.

History is cyclical. Regardless of how enamored Americans, in general, may be with the idea, it is not linear. It is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion. When I look at history, I see times of relative (and it’s all relative, this side of paradise) peace, prosperity, and stability; and other times of relative strife, economic upheaval, uncertainty, and instability. We really did move from one of those times to the other, beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the present.

The point that is easy to miss when uttering phrases like “life is hard for every generation” is that none of this discussion about the Rust Belt – where it’s been, where it is going – has anything to do with a “golden age”. But it has everything to do with the fact that this time of transition was an era (like all eras) that meant a lot (good and bad) to the people that lived through it. It helped make them who they are today, and it helped make where they live what it is today.

For those that were kids at the time that the great unraveling began (people like me, and people like Della) it is partially about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke. In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends’ parents worked in rubber factories. In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron. By 1984, 90% of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory. Just as when a person dies, many people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment, and denial.

As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live. The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, as a proud Akronite: This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves; well, that all got yanked away. I couldn’t believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it. I could see it with my own two eyes. Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can’t live a lie the way that adults can. When the place that you thought you lived in turns out not to be the place that you actually live, it can be jarring and disorienting. It can even be heartbreaking.

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

-Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I’m fond of the above quote. I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old. Time, and the realization that life is short, and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it besides analyze it as an outside observer, has lessened its power considerably. It remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie. It certainly fits in quite well with all of this. But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

I use the phrase “Rust Belt Orphan” in the title of this post, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut-level. But it’s a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing.

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the “Generation X” of regions – the place that just doesn’t seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself; the place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because they have already been subsumed by the place’s own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

The whole Gen-X misfit wandering-in-the-Rust Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom acknowledged part of our regional culture. It is probably just as well. It’s so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie. Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.

Whither the Future?

The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us?

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on. We have begun to do this in Akron, and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole.

But what does “making our peace” and “moving on” really mean? In many ways, I think that our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades. Nostalgia and angst regarding the things that have been lost (some of our identity, prosperity, and national prominence) is all part of the grieving process. The best way out is always through.

But we should grieve, not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on, but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. Coming to grips with and acknowledging those things, ultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief. There’s a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with “moving on” and (even worse) that “moving on” is synonymous with “getting over it”.

We’re very comfortable with that neat and tidy straight, upwardly-trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive, and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, Amen.)

We’re not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention. But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in. It is far from perfect. I wish that I had another one to offer you. But there isn’t one on this side of the Great Beyond. For all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one inestimable advantage: it is unambiguously real.

“Moving on” means refusing to become paralyzed by the past; living up to our present responsibilities; and striving every day to become the type of people that are better able to help others. But “moving on” doesn’t mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn’t experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we’ve actually been dealt.

Second, I don’t think we can, or should, “get over” the Rust Belt. The very phrase “get over it” traffics in denial, wishful thinking, and the estrangement of one’s self from one’s roots. Countless attempts to “get over” the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable short-sighted, “get rich quick” economic development projects, and public-private pyramid-schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective, and expensive.

We don’t have to be (and can’t be, even if we want to) something that we are not. But we do have to be the best place that we can be. This might mean that we are a smaller, relatively less-prominent place. But it also means that we can be a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place. The only people that can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, Big Business, and Big Industry, we always seem to be so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization, and the Next Big Thing. I’m not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both. Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big? No. Absolutely not. But it does mean that we should be prudent and wise, and that we should tend to prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused, and ultra-diverse. Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s famous “Make no little plans…” quote has done us much harm. Sometimes “little plans” are exactly what we need, because they often involve fundamentals, are easier to pull-off, and more readily establish trust, inspire hope, and build relationships.

Those of us that came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges, and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on. Those of us that stuck it out and still live here, know where we came from. We’re under no illusions about who we are or where we live. I think Della Rucker was on to something when she listed what we can bring to the table:

  • Determination
  • Long-game focus
  • Understanding the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it
  • Resourcefulness
  • Ability to salvage
  • Expectation that there are no easy answers
  • Disinclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big Thing

When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills, and leadership. It all rings true.

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams

So, let’s have our final elegy for the Rust Belt. Then, let’s get to work.

This post originally appeared in Notes From the Underground on November 2, 2013.

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

Columbus: Getting Fit For the Competition Ahead

This is the last of my entries prompted by my recent trip to Columbus. I’ve noted before that Columbus and Indianapolis are twin cities in many ways, though with some important differences.

One of those differences is that the civic discussion in Indianapolis today is heavily driven by the urgency of reversing the decline of Marion County as the city of Indianapolis increasingly loses out demographically and economically to its suburbs. In Columbus, by contrast, I didn’t sense nearly the same concern about suburban competition. While again I only have limited data points to go by, what conversations I did have if anything suggested to me that the city of Columbus thinks it’s holding most of the cards in the region. I suggest letting Indianapolis be a cautionary tale, and that Columbus should be much more focused on how to manage future suburban competition than it presently seems to be.

By the late 1960s Indianapolis had, like most cities, been steadily losing ground to suburban development. The response was a city-county merger called Unigov* that in effect annexed all important contemporary suburbs are well as most of the empty land that would be urbanized in the next two decades. This allowed Indianapolis to capture that suburban tax base and avoid many of the problems that plagued other older cities during the 1970s.

Fast forward to the present and it’s clear that the Unigov model is out of gas. Marion County is now largely full apart from some areas in the southern parts, and has a fairly flat growth curve in population. Most the growth is now in the collar counties. What’s more, there’s been a huge employment shift as well, with the city losing 41,000 jobs since 2000 and the suburbs gaining 78,000. I gave an overview of the dynamics in a previous post.

Today Indianapolis has a serious problem on its hand. How did this happen? It’s pretty simple. Unigov bought he city 40 years. But what did it do with that time? It built up its downtown to one of America’s best, a legitimately impressive and important accomplishment. But beyond that it was basically business as usual. Unfortunately, the 5.5 square miles of downtown can’t carry the rest of the city’s nearly 400. The city should have been aggressively preparing for the day when Unigov would reach exhaustion. But it did not.

Columbus utilized a similar technique to Unigov by aggressively annexing suburban development. And it had fairly similar results, doing well and avoiding the problems. But it seems to be widely accepted in Columbus that the city is nearing the end of its growth by annexation phase. While unlike in Indiana, Ohio makes it fairly easy to annex across county lines, and Columbus extends into multiple counties already, annexation has slowed to a crawl. In part I’m told that they are now reaching into territories that have other sources of water than the city of Columbus water utility, and thus the city has less leverage to annex than before. While technically not hemmed in, Columbus has less room for growth than before. This raises the question of when the dynamics of decline will set in within the newly stagnant city.

Columbus appears to be in better shape than Indy right now. I’d say this is for a few reasons. First, Franklin County, Columbus’ home base, is geographically bigger than Indy’s Marion County, giving Columbus a larger area of natural historic dominance. Columbus is also home to newer office/retail suburban development than Indianapolis. For example, Indy’s Keystone Crossing area is based on edge city and power center templates that are dated, while the corresponding Easton area in Columbus is newer and built to a lifestyle center type template that’s a bit more up to date. Columbus similarly has the relatively new Polaris area inside its borders.

What’s more, Columbus’ suburbs are comparatively underdeveloped and thus aren’t rivals as of yet. Indianapolis has five suburbs with more than 50,000 people – two of them with more than 80,000. Columbus has none. Only Dublin, which has 43,000 people, 9.5 million square feet of office space, and major downtown development ambitions, appears to be a full scale competitor at this point. Most other suburban municipalities are much smaller (e.g., New Albany has less than 10,000 people) and/or enclosed by the city of Columbus and thus limited in growth. Favored quarter suburban Delaware County has 185,000 people (some of which are in the city of Columbus) vs. nearly 300,000 for analogous Hamilton County, IN. What’s more, Hamilton County is far ahead in infrastructure vs. Delaware County. Delaware County has next to no upgraded east-west or “crosstown” arterials. Two reservoirs there make developing them difficult, with one of them separating I-71 from the developed parts of the county. Thus the county is even lacking in north-south “radial” movements.

These factors and others have essentially kept Columbus from facing any significant suburban competition. But unless the city wants to somehow double down on annexation and try to restart that engine, at some point these dynamics will change and the city of Columbus will find itself physically constrained and competitively disadvantaged vs. newer and now more powerfully developed suburban entities. Dublin is likely a preview of coming attractions.

I don’t have any particular policy suggestion in mind here, nor am I saying that anything the city is doing is necessarily wrong. But given what has happened in Indianapolis, I would certainly encourage the future prospect of suburban competition to be top of mind. The city of Columbus should be aggressively scenario planning for how this will play out, and use the runway that it has left to be preparing for the era of more intense intra-regional competition to come. Better to err on the side of paranoia, because the risks of waiting until you’ve got a serious problem on your hands are too high to ignore.

* Unigov also ensured a white majority in the city

Friday, June 27th, 2014

A Look At Urban Economies

A few interesting studies were recently released that I wanted to highlight. The first is from the Manhattan Institute, and is called “America’s Top Metros: Who’s Leading the Economy and Why.” It looks at recent metro area performance during the 2009-2012 period. I find this one of interest because it is balances horizontal and vertical measures of urban performance. Often people looking at cities talk past each other because some emphasize “horizontal” measures around total quantitative growth in jobs or population while others look at “vertical measures” such as per capita GDP or per capita income. This study blends both, looking at per capita GDP, per capita income, and job growth.

Maybe as a result of this balance approach, the cities doing well and doing poorly are a diverse lot without a one size fits all model. Among the commonalities they did see, they noted that successful cities tended to have higher educational attainment; a higher professional, scientific, and technical job share; more large corporate headquarters, and less dependency on government spending in an era of state and local fiscal retrenchment. Laggards suffered disproportionately from over-dependency on housing construction. The also found that while the Rust Belt was quick out of the gate as manufacturing rebounded, it’s tailed off of late, a classic pro-cyclical pattern we’ve seen before.

My favorite part is that they stress that there’s no one size fits all model, telling metro areas to “know thyself”:

Every local economy has strengths and weaknesses. Some, like taxes and regulations, can be changed by policy. But others are inherent in the nature of the place. You either have oil and gas beneath your feet, or you don’t. You may want to trade smokestacks for cutting-edge tech and “clean jobs,” but you don’t have the needed critical mass of talent, research institutions, venture capital, and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, you may be better than any other MSA at making something the nation (and world) needs: think of Grand Rapids and office furniture. Just as there is no single route to success, every community has to evaluate its existing strengths and figure out how best to draw on them for growth over the long term. Targeting an industry like technology only works for MSAs that have strength and support in that area.

The second study is from the Brookings Institution and is called “FDI in U.S. Metro Areas: The Geography of Jobs in Foreign-Owned Establishments.” As the name implies, it looks at the impact of foreign owned enterprises on large US metro areas, specifically on employment impact. This is a data rich study that for the first time I’ve seen makes information like that available.

A few highlights popped out to me. One is that new greenfield investments from foreign firms are not a net new source of jobs. Almost all of the foreign impact comes through M&A (mergers and acquisitions). Of course, subsequent to using M&A to gain a foothold in an area, possibly with job losses involved through consolidations, firms can later invest to grow their presence. Another tidbit is that manufacturing still accounts for about half of FDI investments.

Brookings basically suggests that FDI is not a panacea and probably not much effort should be expended on it as such. Rather, foreign firms are attracted by the same things as domestic ones, so by doing things such as improving infrastructure and boosting local industry clusters, FDI is then attracted.

They also highlight what I think is an important vector in FDI, namely using a foreign corporate presence to build global connectivity. As the study puts it:

In two key respects the foreignness of FDI itself is important: It brings with it exposure to new knowledge, customs, and practices, and it establishes trade and investment linkages between regions globally. In the process, FDI can increase the global fluency—which is itself an increasingly important determinant of regional competitiveness in the modern economy—of host regions. The foreignness of FDI therefore serves to integrate its host regions more fully into a rapidly globalizing economy where 85 percent of economic growth through 2019 is projected to occur outside of the United States—even if the capacity to take advantage of the opportunity varies by region.

You’ll definitely want to see where your region stands on this.

I also want to briefly point you to the Chicago Fed’s, Industrial Cities Initiative project. They just issued a major report with profiles of ten historic manufacturing cities in the Chicago Fed district, including Joliet, Fort Wayne, Racine, Green Bay, and Grand Rapids. For people in small to midsized industrial cities, this is a good resource.

Lastly, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs just released a study on Midwest immigration and how it is helping to offset aging and declining workforces in various communities. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to digest this one, but wanted to pass it along anyway.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

Telestrian Data Terminal


A production of the Urbanophile, Telestrian is the fastest, easiest, and best way to access public data about cities and regions, with totally unique features like the ability to create thematic maps with no technical knowledge and easy to use place to place migration data. It's a great way to support the Urbanophile, but more importantly it can save you tons of time and deliver huge value and capabilities to you and your organization.

Try It For 30 Days Free!

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.


Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Copyright Information