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 Americaâs 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.
After 40 years of futile efforts to revive them, the question of how to help these cities continues to bedevil us.
Americaâs 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 dâĂȘtre. 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 doesnât 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, youâre 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 arenât 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 Mooreâs film Roger & Me.