Friday, December 19, 2008

Saint Louis Blues

My morning sweep of "brain drain" articles yielded a gem about the troubling demography of St. Louis:

Statistically quantifying St. Louis’s "brain drain" problem is an exercise in frustration because current statistics used to bracket the issue only show small shards of a large statistical mirror needed for St. Louis and the region to reflect on its true severity and ramifications. Whether "brain drain" is a crisis, overblown perception, or lies somewhere in the nether region between the two, a host of organizations exist to attract and/or retain young professional talent to the region, including FOCUS St. Louis, Insight St. Louis, The River City Professionals, the St. Louis Regional Chamber & Growth Association, (RCGA), Metropolis St. Louis and many others.

How bad is the "brain drain" problem?

FOCUS St. Louis, a 12-year-old, regional, non-profit, booster organization released an 18-page report in July 2002 entitled "Preparing St. Louis for Leadership in the 21st Century Economy." The report’s subtitle is "An Economic Crisis on the Horizon: The St. Louis Region Must Attract and Retain Young Knowledge Workers." Separated into six sections, the report, at its core, maintains that "a dearth of young workers is a crisis for our regional economy." Buttressing this assertion are statistics from the 2000 U.S. Census that show St. Louis had a 15.1 percent drop in the number of people aged 20-34 from 1990 to 2000. Cities like Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Portland and Seattle had double digit increases in the same timeframe. This report, which also included other recommendations to maximize St. Louis’s potential, sounded a clear alarm bell that St. Louis must fight to recruit and retain young professional talent.

However, this call to arms was somewhat blunted by the spring 2004 release of "The Corps of Rediscovery: St. Louis in the 21st Century," a regional talent project report by famed urbanist Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California. This 61-page study, sponsored by the RCGA and the Greater St. Louis Economic Development Council, painted a picture of a glass half full instead of half empty.

Kotkin’s expansive report, which placed a greater emphasis on recruiting and retaining thirty-somethings than twenty-somethings, stressed that "the long-term persistent out-migration out of St. Louis has now virtually ceased" and notes that "some of the most rapid rates of out-migration can be found in many of the so-called ‘creative’ cities, such as New York and San Francisco." The report also focuses on the "demographic recovery of the Midwest" as a region and highlights several important statistics, such as St. Louis’s comparatively high percentage of people under 18, its low annual rate of migration compared to other Midwestern cities, and its low cost of living compared to other "cool" cities.

I put in bold type the part of the extended quotation that meshes with my understanding of Rust Belt brain drain. Whether we look at St. Louis, Detroit or Pittsburgh; out-migration isn't the issue that city boosters make it out to be. I'd also agree with Mr. Kotkin that any initiative should go after thirtysomethings as opposed to the geographically fickle twentysomethings.

More germane to this post, all the St. Louis organizations trying to improve the city are not on the same page. I've encountered the same thing in Pittsburgh. There is no unified vision and one part of the city often has no idea what is going on in another part. As one well-networked Pittsburgher once told me, there is no one place to shop your ideas for a better region.

Furthermore, there appears to be two diametrically opposed paradigms for urban redevelopment. Kotkin is no fan of the Richard Florida-inspired "Cool Cities" program. Polemics (see Flat World versus Spiky World) make the approaches seem vastly different than they really are, but the ideologically inclined polity is comfortable with picking a side. I'm concerned because attracting new talent is given nothing more than lip-service while talent retention gets all the money.

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