Spotlight on Legacy Cities, Large and Small
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They’re the subject of laments by Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. Once powerhouses of the American economy, they now conjure images of abandoned steel mills and factories, and vacant houses and storefronts. And they gained national attention when President Trump busted though Hillary Clinton’s so-called “blue wall” by winning over voters in cities like Scranton, Pennsylvania, Joe Biden’s hometown.
But from Gary, Indiana, to Lowell, Massachusetts, smaller post-industrial cities are taking strategic steps to regenerate. They have a chance to follow their larger rebounding counterparts like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, by building on downtowns, capitalizing on a unique sense of place, and focusing on workforce development.
That’s according to a report from the Lincoln Institute and the Greater Ohio Policy Center, Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities, which was distributed at the Meeting of the Minds in Cleveland in October 2017 – a region where post-industrial regeneration is very much top of mind.
The report, by Torey Hollingsworth and Alison Goebel from the Greater Ohio Policy Center, examines 24 cities with populations of 30,000 to 200,000 across seven midwestern and northeastern states: Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
The cities differ greatly, but they share much in common. They are grappling with persistent poverty, inequality, and blight, which were compounded by the Great Recession. They seek to attract young professionals and startups to become affordable alternatives to hot market cities, but they also need to nurture their existing populations across all incomes and skill levels. They first rose to prosperity amid a wave of immigration, and many recognize the role of immigrants in their resurgence a century later.
“No two places are alike, but smaller legacy cities can learn from each other as they reposition themselves, whether as a regional service center, a competitor on the national or global stage, or a tourism hub,” Goebel and Hollingsworth said. “They will need to build teams from the public and private sectors who share a spirit of collaboration and the will to lead their communities through a period of great transformation.”
The report recommends eight strategies for revitalization that have shown promise in some places.
Build Civic Capacity and Talent
For legacy cities, charting a path forward will require strong leaders to envision and implement necessary changes. For example, South Bend, Indiana, is strengthening local leadership through a fellowship program that places highly skilled recent graduates in management-level positions in the private and public sector in order to integrate them into the civic fabric early in their careers.
Encourage a Shared Public-and-Private-Sector Vision
Local governments alone cannot solve the challenges facing cities. Private-sector leaders must also “own the problem” of urban revitalization and work collaboratively with the public sector. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a group of private-sector leaders stepped in to create and implement a new economic development plan that reimagined the city as a tourist hub.
Expand Opportunities for Low-Income Workers
Efforts to revitalize cities will not succeed if they focus on higher-income people alone. Each city must invest in creating greater access to opportunity for all its residents. Lima, Ohio has created an umbrella organization to coordinate workforce development efforts and ensure that residents are sufficiently trained for available jobs.
Build on an Authentic Sense of Place
Increasingly, highly skilled workers choose where they want to live before searching for a job in that place. To attract such workers and the jobs that follow them, smaller legacy cities should build on their historic sense of place. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, converted part of a closed steel plant into an arts and cultural campus, which has become a signature draw both for local residents and outside visitors.
Focus Regional Efforts on Rebuilding a Strong Downtown
The fate of a city is clearly intertwined with that of its surrounding region. Strong, vibrant downtowns are a critical asset for the entire regional economy. In Syracuse, New York, the local chamber of commerce and the state have prioritized downtown revitalization efforts to help create jobs and attract talented workers.
Engage in Community and Strategic Planning
Competing visions for a city’s future cannot all be executed, particularly where resources are stretched thin. Community-wide planning can help identify how to allocate limited resources while laying the groundwork for further investment. Grand Rapids, Michigan, encourages neighborhoods to create and maintain community plans that help guide investment when new development is set to occur.
Stabilize Distressed Neighborhoods
After engaging in community-wide planning, the city must work to prevent further declines in neighborhood stability and to rebuild local housing markets. Youngstown, Ohio has used data to pinpoint struggling neighborhoods and then leveraged a variety of financial resources to triage housing in poor condition.
Strategically Leverage State Policies
Some states have programs that target resources to cities based on their size or level of economic distress, while others focus on removing barriers to market development. Local communities can absorb outside resources best when local leaders carefully guide implementation of state policies to align with local goals and to spur additional investment. In Ohio, the state authorized counties to create local land banks that in many cases were key local responders to the vacancy and foreclosure crisis brought on by the recession.
Many of the innovative approaches identified in this report implicitly acknowledge that economic growth rests on addressing equity issues and promoting business development simultaneously. Smaller legacy cities are faced with the challenging—and exciting— task of reimaging their form, function, and place in the world as they work to rebuild functional economies and create opportunity for their residents.
Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities is a follow-up to the Lincoln Institute’s 2013 report, Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, by Alan Mallach and Lavea Brachman, which focuses on larger cities such as Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. It marks the latest step in the Lincoln Institute’s ongoing initiative to help build the capacity of legacy cities to thrive in the 21st century, and to ensure that all residents enjoy the benefits of revitalization.
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