What Can We Do For America's Most Challenged Cities?


My latest Manhattan Institute study was just released, discussing the particular difficulties facing America’s most distressed cities. Post-industrial metro areas with less than one million people that have experience significant decline are in a different category than other places. In addition to demographic and employment challenges, they tend to have low end economies, low levels of educational attainment, and very few elite caliber assets such as an R1 research university around which to rebuild.

I suggest that speculative economic development projects and subsidies are unlikely to work at reviving these places because the market is fundamentally against them. Rather, they should focus on building the preconditions of success by fixing their finances, reforming their governance, and rebuilding public services. This will require significant state, and perhaps some federal, assistance for them to achieve.

Click over to read the report.

I also have an article online at CityLab discussing my report. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

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.

Click through to read the whole thing.

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, Forbes.com, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.