Will a Dying City Finally Turn to Immigrants?


Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis, who is based in Cleveland, estimates that new census numbers might show Cleveland's population to be 325,000, a whopping 153,000 drop in 10 years! That would be an average of 15,000 people leaving Cleveland every year.

That’s 1,250 people jumping ship every month,

312 people fleeing the wreckage every week,

45 people evacuating every day, or

2 people running out of Cleveland every hour, 24/7, the whole year, for 10 straight years.

Even conservative estimates have us losing 10 percent of our population this decade, the fastest rate of decline of any major American city (except New Orleans). And still, remarkably, we hear no alarm bells from City Hall, no calls of urgency, just a commitment to stay the course and manage the decline.

While the extent of the exodus is debateable, it’s obvious that Cleveland, a city that once boasted 1 million residents, is not on the bright path to rebirth.

Maybe we don't really understand the problem.

New York City and Chicago, like most major cities, see significant out-migration of their existing residents each year. What is atypical is that Cleveland does not enjoy the energy of new people moving in.

Put simply, the city needs the fresh optimism and pluck of new immigrants, the most likely source of New Clevelanders.

New immigrants are inherently mobile,and can move to Cleveland as part of secondary migration from New York City or other gateway cities. Many would be excited to pursue their American Dream right here on the shores of Lake Erie. In part due to the presence of immigrant language cable television and the internet, they can come to Cleveland and still retain ties to their native culture. Immigrants are moving to far more isolated places, such as Fargo, North Dakota.

The great shame is that this was once proud city of immigrants (nearly 1/3 foreign-born in the early 20th century). But it now only 5% of its population is foreign-born, well-below the national average of 12%.

But none of this impresses Mayor Frank Jackson who summarily dismisses immigrant-attraction initiatives like those in Philadelphia and those being discussed now in Detroit. Yet the basic reality is that immigration provides the only way for cities like Cleveland to generate the kind of numbers needed to make up for decades of mass out-migration.

In numerous cities around the country, economic development professionals and foundations are looking at ways to tap the immigrant market. This will not only counter local depopulation and stabilize local the housing market, but will also attract a new wave of urban entrepreneurs, investors and consumers.

They also realize that a globally diverse city would act as a magnet for the young, international and minority professionals leading the New Economy. These people could help catalyze a transformation to a more entrepreneurial, globally-connected and innovation-based local economy.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced his plans to recruit 75,000 newcomers within five years to fill the city's abandoned homes. And he's targeting immigrant newcomers who have recently arrived in New York City.

In Detroit, the New Economy Initiative (a $100 million regional fund for economic development), the Skillman Foundation, and the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce are conducting a community-wide discussion about ways to rebuild the city by attracting immigrants and international resources and promoting new intercultural partnerships for the benefit of all its citizens.

Other cities consider immigrant-attraction strategies, but Cleveland City Hall ignores the very people most likely to move to Cleveland: immigrants looking to own their first homes and to start their new businesses.

Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group conducted a study on Northeast Ohio’s economy and concluded that that the region is likely to suffer even after the rest of the country recovers from the recession. PNC’s Senior Economist and author of The Econosphere, Craig Thomas, found that attracting immigrants would help the region’s economy through investments in housing stock and start-ups.

“As people leave, it really does take international folks to come in, open up stores and fill up neighborhoods,” Mr. Thomas told Crain’s Cleveland Business.

But Mayor Jackson insists that efforts like those in Philadelphia and supported by economists like Mr. Thomas are not for Cleveland. As he began his second term, he said that he is positioning the City to compete in the global economy by building from within by using what he calls "self-help."

But not many are left to help. And by the time the policy is seen as a failure, even more will be gone.

As people leave, so do businesses, from neighborhoods and many parts of downtown where vacancy rates have skyrocketed.

As Cleveland’s downward spiral continues, the local leadership appears clueless on how to stop it.

Richard Herman is the co-author of Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker) (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). Herman is the founder of an immigration and business law firm in Cleveland, Ohio, which serves a global clientele in over 10 languages. He is the co-founder of a chapter of TiE, a global network of entrepreneurs started in 1992 in Silicon Valley by immigrants from India. For more information on immigrant entrepreneurship and rust belt revival, see www.ImmigrantInc.com ; www.youtube.com/user/Immigrantinc2010 ; www.ohio.tie.org . Contact Richard at richard.t.herman@gmail.com or 216-696-6170.

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