Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mega-Regional Value Proposition

Thinking about the brain drain problem at different scales is instructive. Talent that moves from the city to the suburbs isn't an issue, save the eroding tax base for the municipality, because these workers will likely commute back in to where most of the jobs are located. We should be careful to consider that migration and natural decline when sounding the alarm about our shrinking cities.

Subsidies for public postsecondary education changed the brain drain game. As long as the human capital stays instate, the benefits outweigh the costs. There also exists a regional benefit. Going to high school in Vermont, I remember considering other colleges throughout New England because I was eligible for reduced tuition. But these carrots ultimately failed because graduates ranged well beyond the pale in search of opportunity. At least, if you buy the brain drain hype.

Domestic migration is a story of proximity. There is a surprising amount of churn between the cities of Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Columbus. Pittsburgh also enjoys considerable talent exchange with Philadelphia and Washington, DC. What is good for one city should be good for the entire network.

The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is making just such a pitch:

"It would be far better for us to lose a deal to Charlotte than to lose it to Singapore or London," said Tad Leithead, a businessman who serves on the ARC committee that proposed the mega-region approach.

Richard Longworth makes a similar case for the Midwest mega and Brookings is pushing the concept of the Great Lakes. However, exactly how Atlanta losing a deal to Charlotte being the lesser of two evils is unclear. How might we convince the mega-regional skeptics that there are tangible benefits?

Shrink the distance between metros to that of a commute. Consider Simin Curtis' big idea for Pittsburgh:

Let's have our famous Pittsburgh Symphony go to the region and bring businesses along with them on a grand tour. Let's foster more forums to share knowledge about the Middle East. Let's increase our student exchanges. Let's have local businesses mentor students from the Middle East from the moment they arrive at our universities. Let's have businesses with operations in, say, Cairo or Dubai mentor other businesses contemplating doing business in the Middle East. And while we're at it, let's get a direct flight from Pittsburgh to the Middle East to accommodate all the increased exchanges.

While Pittsburgh might not generate enough ridership to justify that direct flight, Cleveburgh could. Already, Pittsburghers consider flying out of Akron/Canton or Cleveland as viable options. High-speed rail between the three airports would make it even more so. Better transportation links also increase the distance trust can travel. The pool of ideas and venture capital would grow (see Tech Belt Initiative). Also, Pittsburgh produces more talent than it can use. Increased Cleveburgh connectivity will alert graduates to opportunities in Akron, Youngstown, and Cleveland. If someone wants to stay in the region (or move back), there would be greater options.

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