Comeback Kids

  Admittedly it is awkward to boast about the economic recovery that is occurring in much of the Rust Belt. In our own neck of the woods, Akron, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Youngstown have all experienced strong recoveries. According to Brookings Youngstown Ohio ranked 8th out of 100 metro areas for job growth. Yes, Youngstown Ohio. Here are a few insights from Brookings’ Metro Monitor:

  • Manufacturing regions in general led the recovery – Recovery in the automotive sector has helped the auto-producing regions – Recovery in Information Technology has also helped the IT regions.
  • There might be signs of the regional impact of stimulus – “The metropolitan areas with the strongest economic recoveries generally gained government jobs, while those with the weakest recoveries generally lost them. Eleven of the 20 strongest-recovering metropolitan areas (Bakersfield, Boston, Dallas, Des Moines, Houston, McAllen, New Orleans, Provo, San Jose, Worcester, and Youngstown) gained government jobs (federal (including military), state, and local combined) in the time since their total employment bottomed out, while one (Lakeland) had no change in government employment.?”

I think these findings have interesting implications for the national debate going on right now about our economy and the role of the federal government. We always seem to want a clear Yes or No, Stop or Go type of answer and in a complex economy like the U.S. that is never easy. The truth is that what works for one region does not work for another. Maybe what is wrong is our idea of a national economic policy. It might work better if we created regional policies and plans to address the unique needs of regional employers, workers and the environment. The Obama Administration has attempted to do this with their support for Regional Innovation Clusters, but I think it will take a more fundamental restructuring of how federal agencies work. As long as we try to fit square regional pegs into round national policies, we are going to continue to be frustrated with our economic policy.

Tale of Two Cities

With much attention given recently to many great American cities losing population since the 2000 census, a recent posting in StreetsBlog by Angie Schmitt calls attention to the other tale of this story.  While overall population in numbers look like this for the following cities since 2000:

  • Baltimore: -4.6%
  • Chicago: -6.9%
  • Cincinnati: -10.4%
  • Cleveland: -17.1%
  • Pittsburgh: -8.6%
  • St. Louis: -8.3%

…signs within these city’s give reason for optimism.  “While many cities got kicked in the shins if you look at their overall populations, downtowns and their surrounding neighborhoods enjoyed a resurgence,” notes Schmitt.

  • Baltimore‘s downtown residential population has grown by 11.6% since 2006 and now provides living space for more than 40,000 people.
  • Chicago‘s Loop saw a 76% increase in inhabitants since 2000 and the Near South Side more than doubled in population over the same period (even as the number of jobs downtown declined by 60,000).
  • Cleveland‘s most central census tracks each gained 20% or more in population between 2000 and 2010.
  • St. Louis‘ central neighborhoods gained several thousand people in total.

And here in Pittsburgh, while an aging residency continues to contribute to an overall population loss, redevelopment efforts in many neighborhoods such as the East End, Lawrenceville, Southside and Financial District are seeing the arrival of younger professionals often employed in Pittsburgh’s growing health care, energy and education sectors.  Most of these projects are offering higher density living with easy access to transit systems, pedestrian and bike routes.  Rising cost of gas will likely continue to fuel interest in these type of living options.

Pittsburgh’s home values have also been steadily increasing between 3% and 4% annually, even during the financial crisis.  Forbes projects homes to continue to appreciate for Pittsburgh in 2011.  Slow and steady wins the race.

“Rightsizing” is also a growing strategy for cities.  Rather than filling every old building site with another building, planners are incorporating parklets, community gardens and other passive recreation options on an urban scale.  Cleveland is pushing this thinking to the next level with its “Re-Imagining A More Sustainable Cleveland” project.  Convened by the Neighborhood Progress in collaboration with the City of Cleveland and Ken State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, the City is aggressively rethinking what comes next for its vacant land.

It is clear that much is happening that is part of a complex and exciting story for our nation’s great cities.  Changes in overall population are only part of that story.  Those of us witnessing the positive changes at the neighborhood level would agree that an urban renaissance is continuing with most believing the best is still yet to come.

Regional Innovation Clusters: The TechBelt Initiative (a best practice)

If you work in economic development or are in a business that thrives on innovation you have probably heard about regional innovation clusters or some version of the theme. With the White House promoting Startup America with a focus innovation and entrepreneurship from coast to Cleveland and looking to regions as partners you soon may have a regional innovation cluster map drawn over your workplace.

The core model of economic clusters is not new but the approach has evolved over the years. For a unique approach and a best practice I recommend the TechBelt Initiative. TechBelt has been linking economic development activities in the Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh corridor for several years now.

 

In full disclosure I am biased to proclaim the TechBelt Initiative a best practice since my firm is staff the effort. I do have objectivity as my team works with innovation-based economic development groups throughout the country. There are a lot of great efforts underway and all can learn from one another. What TechBelt can share is the following:

First, the TechBelt Initiative operates under an approach of what Ed Morrision calls Strategic Doing, which is simply explained as a “learning by doing” model. The TechBelt relies less on overproduced studies and more on instinct and ‘just in time analysis’ to understand the best direction to take and investments to make.

Second, the TechBelt has chosen an approach that limits formality and bureaucracy to allow for rapid team building and responsive decision-making. This allows over three-dozen organizations to work together collaboratively and not get hung up on who is in charge.

Third, the TechBelt has regional leaders of organizations that care deeply about their communities and organizations they serve – but also see the value of building the larger regional community.

Finally, that last word in the preceding sentence, Community, is why the TechBelt region is different. The work that is being done at times is proactive and other reactive but in both cases we are bringing together individuals who are sharing their vision, their ideas for the region and are getting to know one another. As the world begins to recognize the value of open innovation, this TechBelt community is what matters most. The friendships that are being built will support the accomplishment of great things both now and in the future.

I invite others to share their ideas about what is working in their regional innovation clusters and together we will help define the next phase of innovation-based economic development strategy.