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Call For Urban Focus: Shining A Light On The Cities

September 24, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

A tiny think tank you've never heard of manages to put its finger on Connecticut's economic sore points.

The Connecticut Regional Institute for the 21st Century is a public-private partnership formed in the late 1990s around the work of North Carolina consultant Michael Gallis, an expert in regional development.

Gallis, you may recall, is the one who said gridlock was turning the state into an "economic cul-de-sac." His 1999 report led to the creation of the Transportation Strategies Board, which laid the groundwork for the $3.5 billion investment in transportation made in the past two sessions of the General Assembly.

The business leaders who brought Gallis to the state formed the institute to pursue themes Gallis raised about the state's economy. In 2003 the institute issued a report on the connection between smart growth and economic development. A number of the recommendations were incorporated into the state's Plan of Conservation and Development, though we await a comprehensive smart growth strategy.

On Monday the institute issued its third report, "Economic Vitality & Competitive Cities." The thrust is that Connecticut's cities, many of which are struggling, are important to the state's economic future and must be revitalized.

The report say the state "needs a new urban agenda." That may be stating the obvious, but I'm not hearing it from anyone else.

Nutmeg Nation is a land of small cities and larger metro areas. The report observes that 90 percent of the state's population lives in one of six metro areas (counting Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk as one metro). Stamford, Norwalk and Danbury are doing OK, but the rest are sucking wind in varying degrees. Their residents have low family income and thus high rates of poverty; low educational achievements, hence high rates of unemployment, etc.

Having gotten into the hole, it's hard for cities to stop digging because they've lost middle-class residents, retain few young college graduates, and have lost jobs and leadership from the business community. With no leading urban center, such as Boston or Providence, our cities' political influence is limited.

The recent efforts to help our cities have been piecemeal and poorly coordinated. Former Gov. John Rowland built a lot of buildings in cities, but buildings by themselves don't address middle-class flight or the rest of the urban problems. Also, buildings are (relatively) easy. Changing the property tax system, which hurts the cities and the rest of the state, is hard. It will take courage and vision. Thus far, the sword is still in the stone.

But why care? Why not head back to the suburbs and leave the cities to their own devices?

Because cities aren't going away, shouldn't go away and have much to offer.

Cities are the home of businesses, government buildings, and education, religious, health and entertainment facilities that cannot be found in the suburbs. And should not be in the suburbs. The report might have discussed economy of scale: There cannot be a state capitol, major arena or theater or a college in every town. It makes sense, as it always has, to have some things in the center. Some companies work better in proximity to other companies and support industries, even in the electronic age.

The exodus from the cities has driven wasteful and expensive sprawl development in the suburbs. Reversing the trend could save farms and other open space. Living more densely saves energy and transportation costs, and encourages the interplay between people that promotes new ideas, business ventures and artistic endeavors. The cities have the arts and nightlife that attract the creative class. The cities will provide much of the future workforce. Is there even an argument about this?

What to do?

Michael Critelli, the chief executive officer of Pitney-Bowes in Stamford and one of the country's visionary business leaders, heads the institute. He said the cities report is a "blueprint," a way to get people on the same page. The report states some of the well-known, if not yet achieved, goals for cities, such as improved public safety, better schools, revamped tax structure, etc.

The report has two novel-to-Connecticut ideas. One is for local governments to use "benchmarks," or "community indicators." In other words, a community sets actual numeric goals for such things as high school graduation, decrease in violent crime, employment, sales tax per capita, and commercial and industrial property assessment, and then judges its elected leaders on how these goals are met. Businesses do this, and it seems to work.

The really radical idea is that the state should "reshape its traditional project-based economic development focus to one that encourages the creation of attractive, livable cities."

Whoa. You mean, instead of giving NerdLink Inc. (or whatever) $30 million to move from Stamford to Norwalk, we put the money into, say, housing near the Bridgeport train station? I'm for it. The problem is that Virginia and Nebraska are trying to poach Connecticut companies all the time, and $30 million is no object. Wouldn't it be nice not to play this game?

I'm not in love with this report, which is credited to Mt. Auburn Associates and the Connecticut Policy and Economic Council. I wish it had more passion and urgency, and more examples of urban innovations from around the country (such as Pitney-Bowes' move of more than 200 back-office jobs into downtown Bridgeport). If we all live in six metro areas, why doesn't someone propose six metro governments?

But if the report gets the Capitol talking about cities, it will have done its job.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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