How to Bring Back Struggling Cities

Linda Parton/Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | A Manhattan Institute report offers strategies to revitalize such struggling cities as Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and Youngstown, Ohio.

In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to build a $15 million film studio near upstate Syracuse, promising 350 high tech jobs. It was one of his many plans to revive the economies of upstate communities with state tax dollars. The facility, in an implausible location for filmmaking, was a flop that attracted little activity, and it was handed off to local government last year for the sum of $1.

This is emblematic of attempts to help America’s struggling post-industrial cities, now back on the national agenda in the wake of the 2016 election, in which Donald Trump won in key Rust Belt states on a promise to bring back jobs. But after 40 years of futile efforts to revive them, the question of how to help these cities continues to bedevil us.

America’s most disadvantaged cities, too often left and behind and forgotten, were undone by powerful forces like deindustrialization and the rise of the global knowledge economy that undermined their economic raison d’être. Difficult as it may be to accept, until market forces swing back in their favor, no major economic recovery is likely for most of them.

But as I point out in a newly released Manhattan Institute report, this doesn’t mean adopting a rhetoric of hopelessness. Rather, it means instead of speculative projects or subsidies, their best strategy is to create the preconditions of revival by fixing their finances, reforming their governance, and rebuilding the core public services on which their residents depend.

What cities are we talking about here? If you ask someone to name a left behind industrial city, you’re likely to hear places like Detroit or Cleveland. They have challenges to be sure, but also much that is positive going on and, more importantly, they have high value assets around which to build a 21st century economy. Detroit, for example, has nine Fortune 500 headquarters, a major concentration of engineering talent, and is a hub for Delta Airlines with non-stop flights to Europe and Asia, among many other things.

The truly left behind and most forgotten cities are smaller places, many of which are little-known: Danville, Illinois; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Michigan City, Indiana; Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and Youngstown, Ohio.

These metropolitan areas often have several strikes against them, including population loss, weak job markets, low value economies, a low share of adults with college degrees, and a central municipality that is financially distressed. They also have very few if any high value assets to rebuild their economies around. They usually aren’t state capitals and lack elite universities, Fortune 500 corporate headquarters, a major airport (or any airport), and name recognition.

For example, Flint, Michigan is a small metro area of only 400,000 people with no major corporate headquarters, no elite research university, and a very small airport. Only 21 percent of its adults have a college degree (vs. the 32 percent national average). It has one large foundation, but otherwise few assets around which to rebuild. It is a well-known city, but overwhelmingly for reasons such as its lead-water crisis and auto-industry collapse made famous by Michael Moore’s film Roger & Me.

Cities like Flint are in a much tougher position than ones like Detroit. And there are a lot of cities like this. In my new report I identified 48 of these metro areas by a simple rule of picking those with less than one million in population and a central city that had lost 20 percent of more of its population from peak. That’s 12.6 percent of all the metro areas in the country, concentrated in the Midwest and Northeastern Rust Belt.

These cities and other similar ones face big challenges, especially if they are remote from a large metro area and completely lacking in high value assets.

Too often, states try to help these cities through massive spending or tax giveaways. The disgraceful Foxconn and Amazon HQ2 site selection processes are emblematic of what goes on every day across America. Massachusetts included Pittsfield in its list of proposed Amazon HQ2 sites, for example, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, also put in a bid. But decades of subsidies haven’t worked and won’t work.

Instead, deeply challenged smaller post-industrial cities should do the basics: Local governments must address their often huge unfunded liabilities and get to structurally balanced budgets. They should reform their governance where necessary, especially by eliminating corruption. And, they need to start rebuilding core public services, especially public safety but also parks, etc. Make no mistake, this will require help from federal and state governments, and may involve painful steps like bankruptcy and prosecutions.

This is not giving up. It’s exactly what New York City did before its comeback. When a financial control board helped it recover from its 1970s brush with bankruptcy, the city put in place a new charter, fought corruption, and started investing in its subways and rebuilding Central Park. It’s also what Detroit did more recently in addressing its financial plight through bankruptcy; creating regional authorities or taxing districts for its water system, convention center, and art museum; and replacing all of its streetlights. It’s what former Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner said she would do if Governor Cuomo gave her city the same billion dollars he gave Buffalo, proposing to spend three-quarters of the money to repair the city’s water system.

It’s unlikely stagnant cities will be able to directly restore their economic vitality by heavily subsidizing business relocations, constructing expensive large-scale amenities, or other such policies. While they can pursue modestly scaled entrepreneurial support initiatives or downtown improvements, their clear focus should be on civic repairs designed to establish the preconditions for recovery.

This won’t bring America’s left behind cities back by itself, but it will provide better government and services for their residents today, and also lay a foundation for future revival if and when market forces swing back in their favor.

Aaron Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. This article was originally published in CityLab.

NEXT STORY: Six States Have Now Passed $15 Minimum Wage Laws

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.