Northern Cities Need to Ramp It Up on Attraction


The Economist just ran a nice article on “the flourishing Midwest.” Milwaukee in particular gets singled out for some favorable coverage, so congratulations to them.

Many Midwest cities have been doing well. Even the ones with poor headline numbers like Cleveland are seeing areas of strength when you look at a finer grained level. Some of the declines Midwest locations are experiencing are a result of the overhang of previous decline. Change and restructuring is happening in many places.

But there’s there’s a big limit on the ability of these places to sustain and build momentum – that’s their talent flow. They are doing a great job drawing people from inside their own state, and occasionally from adjacent places. But they aren’t getting much flow from beyond that.

Here’s the migration chart I put up for out-of-state migration for three successful Midwest metro areas.

And you may recall commenter Frank the Tank’s analysis of the destinations of Big Ten college grads. He noted, “What’s stunning to me, though, is the utter lack of Big Ten grads going anywhere else in the Midwest other than Chicago or a metro area that has a presence in their school’s state.”

I can tell you all the explanations and such about why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And they’d be true. What’s more, times legitimately are good for many of these places and they deserve to be able to celebrate it.

In the longer term, there’s a huge war for talent going on everywhere. Places with little intrinsic advantages over Midwestern cities like Nashville and Charlotte, are pulling people in from a much broader footprint. Their booms are next level compared to these Midwest places. They’ve got a tiger by the tail when it comes to growth, but they are reaping huge advantages with these flows, including building human capital networks around the country.

There are definitely challenges related to weather, culture, etc. in the Midwest. But what’s also needed is a much more aggressive mindset on recruitment, and much stronger marketing. There’s nothing wrong with letting people know you have a good food scene. You need to show that you check the boxes. But these cities have so much more they could be talking about.

There are massive, unique branding opportunities all over the Midwest. Great things, people, innovations that could be presented in a super-compelling way.

To me the sad thing is there isn’t much appetite for doing so. When I go to communities and talk about the things that I as an outsider see as the most cool and unique attributes, almost invariably the locals don’t feel the same way. They see a lot of those legacy attributes as embarrassing relics of yesterday. They’d rather talk about how they are now like the other cool kids.

The one city that does a pretty good job of owning its heritage, warts and all, is Detroit – which probably helps explain why there’s something of a buzz around the city.

There is a huge opportunity for Midwest cities to create some super-compelling marketing material at probably not that high a cost. This is the easy first lever to pull to starting creating a narrative of attraction from out of state or out of region. Who is willing to seize the opportunity?

This piece originally appeared on Urbanophile.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: Downtown Columbus by user Always Shooting, via Flickr, using CC License.