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A Good Mystery

The Urban Institute’s most recent profile of Cleveland reads like a devoted fan’s defense of the Chicago Cubs, a baseball team which has been “rebuilding,” as the saying goes, for about a hundred years. The entire Cleveland metropolitan region has been stagnating, and the economy of the region isn’t growing, either. The City of Cleveland, like the City of Buffalo and the City of Detroit, has been shrinking drastically. Cleveland was 574,000 people in 1980, falling to 391,000 today. (Buffalo was 358,000 people in 1980, and today is 261,000.) But the Urban Institute finds reason to cheer: Downtown Cleveland is charging ahead.

“Over the last two decades, the [downtown Cleveland] neighborhood’s population grew 96%, with residential totals increasing from 4,651 to 9,098,” reports Richey Piiparinen in “Not Dead Yet: the Infill of Cleveland’s Urban Core.” This growth was the single largest spike of any neighborhood, suburb, or county measured in the Cleveland region, which has remained at about 2.8 million since 1960 (just as Buffalo-Niagara has remained at about 1.1 million since 1960). Downtown residential occupancy rates, he says, now stand over 95 percent, and “developers are eagerly looking to meet residential demand.”

The key to Cleveland’s micro-rebound is a spike in the number of people between 22 and 34 who are choosing to live there. Downtown Cleveland leads the inner core’s “brain gain” movement—even though that age group is declining in metro Cleveland, just as it’s declining in metro Buffalo. But that’s not the story in downtown, which is a net importer of young adults.

This is the phenomenon that is also occurring in Detroit, and in Buffalo, and in other Rust Belt cities that are experiencing varying degrees of central-city rebound. A glance at some data indicates that though Detroit and Cleveland are much larger than Buffalo, the relative strength of the diverse regional economy here may possibly make the phenomenon of re-migration here more economically meaningful than in Cleveland and Detroit.

In other words, if public policy is aligned for young knowledge-workers, then these cities have a shot at rebound. And perhaps surprisingly, the data show that the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro economy may be better-positioned to amplify the positive effects of having at least a sliver of this age cohort stick close by—because our metro economy has been growing, not shrinking.

Policy for production?

The Cleveland and Detroit metro economies haven’t grown in the past decade, but the Buffalo-Niagara metro economy has. All three are struggling with population loss, with massive inner-city abandonment, with concentrated poverty, with intractable unemployment and under-employment that is especially hard on African-American men. None of the three regions has any effective regional governance structure. All three have sprawled but have not grown. Fractured governance is the rule. Brownfields, old sewer systems that flood local waterways with raw sewage whenever it rains, obesity epidemics, bad taste in clothing, bitter ethnic feuds that outlast generational succession…same old, same old.

We know all that. What is peculiarly positive about the Buffalo-Niagara Falls economy, however—notwithstanding that a recent analysis found ours to be among the least export-oriented of the big Great Lakes regions—is that we have some enduring strengths here that can be built upon. And for once, there are people who are actively engaged, as policy-makers, in building on them.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the Buffalo-Niagara Falls regional economy has grown in many sectors where Detroit and Cleveland have shrunk. Here, manufacturing of both durable goods (like car parts) and non-durable goods (like food) is up over the past 10 years. In the other places, manufacturing has taken a big hit. Goods-making is not what it used to be here: in the 1950s, over 220,000 people worked in manufacturing here, a circumstance that seems to have permanently settled into the regional mindset as the true measure of human well-being. Private goods-producing industry here is about what it was in 2000, about $8.5 billion out of a total private economy of $33 billion.

Those manufacturing numbers used to come from the massive industrial plants. Now they come from a large number of relatively small firms, many of them deeply engaged in the car-parts supply chain. That’s why the thinking of the Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) is so sensible, and why the thinking of the Erie Community College board is so nonsensical: The place where most of these small manufacturing firms happen to be is within a seven-mile radius of City Hall. The REDC is focusing its job-training and technology-assistance investment close to where the actual economic action is. ECC, and Erie County government, are not.

Structures matter

But with three-quarters of the regional economy being based in services, and with some of those services showing marked increases in output and value and employment over the past decade—even while overall employment has fallen—the question for Rust Belt towns is location, location, location. And the answer seems to be consistent among these metros: the highest-paid young workers, and the most competitive newcomers, seem to be choosing central-city locations more than suburban locations. As there are still net-negative numbers for migration into these metros, the dozens or hundreds of people choosing downtown lofts, fixer-uppers, and other city housing in the centers of Rust Belt cities will have an outsize impact. Numbers matter, and so far, the numbers are small.

That leaves the financial problem that so-called “legacy cities” like Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo face. As a US Bankruptcy court parses which creditors of Detroit’s $18 billion debt portfolio will get what, mayors and municipal managers around the Great Lakes nod at Bill Nojay’s call to start from scratch. Nojay, a non-ideological suburban Rochester member of the New York State Assembly, consulted on Detroit’s transportation system, but found that he couldn’t pay bills, hire lawyers to beat back fraudulent personal-injury claims that were bleeding the system. He also couldn’t schedule staff, buy functioning fare-boxes, or even effectively triage services to high-need areas because of a rat’s nest of rules, a micro-managing legislative body, and unaccountable bureaucrats.

There is, at long last, a small but growing literature among progressive legal scholars that actually addresses some of the key issues in re-organizing these not-for-profit corporations known as cities. “Dissolving cities,” writes Michelle Wilde Anderson in the Yale Law Journal, is something that shrinking cities are thinking about, but the statutes in place today are “immature and thin.” So is much of the thinking about what will help cities rebound.

But there is much to herald in the new phenomenon of younger, more skilled, more highly educated and higher-paid workers choosing central cities. It is connecting the policy dots that remains to be addressed. And that’s where a sometimes frivolous but potentially revealing on-line survey from the Pew Charitable Trusts should pique some interest.

The 14-item quiz asks a bunch of questions designed to reveal whether you think like a Millennial. If religion isn’t so important to you, if you use only a cell phone and not a land line, if you like money but like a sense of personal mission more, and if you think progressively about race, gender, and a couple of other issues, you could be a Millennial. And if you do not have any reason to engage with government, really, and haven’t really engaged with government at any level for the past year, you are, it seems, most decidedly a Millennial.

Thought-provoking, that. Racial tolerance or non-racialism, and not caring what color or badge of the uniform your public servants wear, and just wanting things to work? Because you’re focused on work-life balance and want to be where the entertainment is? For cities still in demographic decline, in regions that are soon to lose the Boomer generation to the grave, a rebound strategy focused on the preferences of Millennials, or those who think like Millennials, sounds sensible.

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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