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Some Cities Are Hot, While Others Are Not

Tom Condon

March 20, 2011

Nearly all of America's older cities took a beating in the postwar years, but some have come back a lot faster and stronger than others.

Why? Why are some cities hot and others not?

That was the subject of a 2009 study, "Reinvigorating the Springfield Economy: Lessons from Resurgent Cities" (http://bit.ly/g7XvdX), by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, as part of an ongoing project the Boston Fed is doing to help boost Springfield's economy (the regional Feds do more public policy work than is generally realized). The study's principal author, senior economist Yolanda K. Kodrzycki, discussed it at a recent conference at the University of Hartford, sponsored by the university's Barney School of Business and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy of Cambridge ( I was the moderator).

To get apples to apples, Kodrzycki and her fellow researchers looked at 25 mid-sized cities from New England to North Carolina to Illinois that were similar in 1960 the principal cities in their metro areas, manufacturing-oriented and mostly in the 100,000 to 250,000 population range. Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Waterbury were on this list.

Since 1960, all were hit with loss of industry and loss of residents to the suburbs. But some have made substantial, sometimes dramatic, comebacks, enhancing community vitality, reducing crime and improving living standards for their residents. The only Connecticut city to make this list was New Haven, with a caveat that it had work to do in some areas.

What was the key to the comebacks?

It's interesting what it wasn't. It wasn't geographic location. Places as varied as Fort Wayne, Ind., Grand Rapids, Mich., Winston-Salem, N.C., and Providence outdistanced their peers. It wasn't population; some up cities had exactly the same populations as some flat cities. It wasn't demographic composition; some resurgent cities, such as Jersey City, Providence and New Haven, have large minority populations, others don't.

Cities that had a heavy reliance on manufacturing with more than 40 percent of workers in factories in 1960 such as Waterbury, with more than 50 percent have struggled to make a have successful transition to the post?industrial economy. But the inverse isn't always true, Springfield and Hartford, with 34 and 30 percent of its workforce in manufacturing in 1960, respectively (weren't those the good old days), have not made significant comebacks.

The answer to why some cities have reversed their fortunes won't surprise you it is leadership and collaboration over long periods of time. It didn't seem to matter who was the leader in various successful cities it ranged from energetic mayors or business organizations to nonprofit foundations and developers but someone stepped up, got the major players behind a plan and then executed it.

New Haven is illustrative. In the early 1990s, the confluence of enlightened administrations at city hall and Yale University have produced a partnership that has changed the face of the city. Yale agreed to make a payment in lieu of taxes to the city and, among other things, redeveloped four deteriorating blocks in the center of the downtown retail district, redid the Broadway shopping area; created a $5 million venture capital fund to lure biotechnology companies to the Science Park incubator and offered $2,000 a year for 10 years to any Yale employee who buys a house in the city, which is something more than 1,000 of them have done.

Other cities turned to science and technology as they diversified away from manufacturing, and virtually all had colleges or universities in the mix. For example, the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center in Fort Wayne, which fosters high-tech entrepreneurship, is adjacent to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, with which it collaborates.

Grand Rapids did a bunch of smart things. It adapted to the loss of furniture manufacturing by modernizing plants and shifting from residential to commercial furniture. The city also focused on new small businesses and growing local businesses. And it created a whole new health care sector.

None of this stuff is dauntingly difficult. No one has a patent on using an airport as a development tool, improving transportation, creating high-speed connectivity, developing regional partnerships, removing a downtown highway, unearthing a river. It's a question of getting the community together, deciding what would work and doing it.

The good news, as Kodrzycki told the crowd, is that there are no structural barriers preventing Springfield or Hartford from reviving itself. Someone just needs to get it going, and keep it going.

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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