Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Decade In Review: Erie Versus Pittsburgh

Offering some contrast to the glowing review of the past decade for Pittsburgh, Peter Panepento paints a gloomy picture of my hometown Erie (Pennsylvania). He call it the "Lost Decade" and encourages his readers to push for better times over the next ten years. Gregg Easterbrook thinks things have already turned around:

But Mr. Easterbrook is not offering just another account of the shift in economic opportunity from the West to the East. Instead, he wants to show how a rapid reconfiguration of resources is benefitting all sorts of unexpected people and places.

Waltham, Mass., and Erie, Pa., are both archetypical American industrial towns that looked as if they were doomed a generation ago. But Waltham is now booming thanks to its proximity to the great idea factories of Cambridge and Boston. The city is home to dozens of high-tech and venture capital firms and houses the headquarters of Global Insight, a consultancy that sells a billion dollars of economic analysis a year to American companies, most notably Wal-Mart.

Erie may not be booming, but it is doing better than it has for decades, thanks to General Electric's willingness to ignore Wall Street analysts (who said that manufacturing was dead and the future lay in finance) and make a bet on renovating its locomotive plant. Today the plant is an important profit center, and trains are the apple of everybody's eye, including Warren Buffett's, while GE's financial-services division was the source of almost all the company's recent losses.

In short, Erie is one of globalization's winners. I'm sure that would come as a bit of a shock to Peter and the readers of his blog. Few people are bullish on Erie.

Easterbrook's positive tale offers a way forward. Erie should warmly embrace globalization instead of fighting it. The city isn't that far from an idea factory like Boston: Pittsburgh. Understandably, Erie feels overshadowed by the bigger city to the south. But one of Erie's greatest assets (besides the tremendous waterfront) is its proximity to three Rust Belt gems (Buffalo and Cleveland being the other two).

Erie needs a road map of how to better align itself with the forces of globalization. I'd recommend studying one of Richard Longworth's Midwestern darlings, Wooster (Ohio). Also, Erie institutions of higher education might consult with Marietta College:

According to Grant Callery, chairman of the board of trustees, looking toward the future means taking "an analysis of what kind of students will go to Marietta, where will they be from and what components of an education will be relevant."

Internationalization and how it fits in at Marietta College is one of the main points.

"The main topics of concern for Marietta College are globalization and the rise of China as a working power, environmental protection, health care and wellness and leadership," Scott said.

The college has been actively recruiting students in China for more than 25 years, and currently has about 130 Chinese students on campus. Scott believes the college's strong relationships with institutions in China are also a positive for U.S. students looking to study there.

"We are in a position to help students grow and learn about China," she said, adding that each year the number of Chinese exchange students has been increasing.

Callery hopes that in the future, Marietta makes its international affairs more of a "two-way street where it's more attractive to American students who want to learn more about the emerging world in China. China will be a force to be reckoned with in the next 20 to 30 years."

That kind of vision seems to be lacking in Erie. But it doesn't have to be that way. I've already written how the city could become a leader in domestic diaspora economic development. And now Easterbrook suggest Erie is a model for other struggling cities to emulate. Erie would do well to leverage these strengths. But the main message is that the past decade might have been better than most think.


JRoth said...

Tried to email this to you, but the email listed on the front page doesn't seem to work:

Interesting take on migration/brain drain from the Economist

You may have seen it, but I saw an excerpt and it made me think of you, even before I got to the words "brain drain."


Jim Russell said...

I was already aware of the article in the Economist, but I had not seen his talk (he links to it in that blog post you reference):


A number of interesting points of departure, but I was most struck how similar Guest's take on immigration is to Joel Kotkin's most recent piece at New Geography: