Tuesday, March 30, 2010

St. Louis Diaspora

The last of Tim Logan's three-part series about the regional workforce challenges facing St. Louis is published today. There's a good bit about talent retention. I'm not a fan of the suggested policy, so I'll refrain from commenting. My contribution to the story shows up in the diaspora discussion:

All over the country, in hip, high-priced cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York, thousands and thousands of 20- and 30-something ex-St. Louisans are, living, working and building careers. Call them our diaspora.

And they are a huge resource.

Because they know St. Louis. These people know how we pronounce Gravois. They've eaten toasted ravioli. To them, St. Louis isn't just another piece of "flyover country," indistinct from Indianapolis or Milwaukee. It's home. And if more of them could be lured back for good, they could give a big shot of new blood to our work force.

I recommended to Tim that he investigate what is going on in Louisville (KY). Louisville is a best-practice example and is similar enough to St. Louis to be an instructive example. Tim pressed me for metrics measuring success, but I'm not aware of any. What qualifies as a successful talent boomerang campaign?

Brain circulation is a relatively new concept in the arena of international economic development. Concerning domestic migration, you could say that I'm one of the pioneers exploring the potential of diaspora geography. This is a policy frontier at any scale.

Part of the problem is that most workforce development programs are retarded, stuck in the industrial era. Hence the local orientation that dominates Logan's narrative. Retention gets top billing and that is a mistake.

International economic development has moved boldly beyond designing better brain drain plugs, finally recognizing a futile exercise. At the vanguard of this paradigm shift is China, with its policy of intentional talent exports. On the whole, brain drain has been very good for China. I suspect the same could be said for India.

Domestically, I think we are on the cusp of a major paradigm shift in workforce development. Educational attainment is a mainstream concept and migration data are ever finer. But I'll end with a comment from Aaron Renn which serves as a postscript for a recent post about urban talent policy:

BTW: I continue to be astonished at how many cities completely don't get it on talent. They talk a good game but are completely unserious.

Monday, March 29, 2010

St. Louis And Pittsburgh

First note, I'm sticking with the series about competitive St. Louis for today and tomorrow. Second note is that anyone concerned about shrinking cities should watch the two online videos about the turnaround in Pittsburgh. Also via Chris Briem, astounding changes in Tioga County:

Edward Trask, a retired nonprofit executive who grew up near Mansfield, is arranging $18 million in financing for a restaurant, a motel, and permanent housing for gas workers on his family's 160-acre farm.

Tioga County is experiencing its first population increase in a century, he said.

"There are so many opportunities to make money from this," said Trask, who lives near Harrisburg. "This is such a shock to the system."

For sure, plenty of strange-but-true migration tales out there right now.

Related to the two videos and yesterday's post, St. Louis as desirable destination:

Right now, St. Louis is not on the list.

You know, the list of cities where things happen. Those magnets for smart, creative people, where talent, innovation and capital generate new ideas, new companies, new industries. Places such as Seattle; Raleigh, N.C.; Austin, Texas; and Boston. Places where the new economy is being built.

"We're not really on the radar in terms of hip and happening places," said Jeff Vines, an area entrepreneur.

Before I remark on that passage, a comment on the first article in the series:

When I told friends I was moving to STL for school, every single person wrinkled their nose and asked why. I have never received a compliment on my decision to move here.

I can assure you that my passion for Pittsburgh generates a similar reaction. What Rust Belt cities are on the radar in terms of hip and happening places? I'd offer up Minneapolis as a city that has morphed during my twentysomething years, around the same time Grunge Seattle got big (as well as Slacker Austin).

My guess is that Pittsburgh is going to emerge from this recession like both Seattle and Minneapolis did in the early 1990s. Keep in mind that the economic landscape now will look a lot different from dotcom boom. I'm not expecting another talent migration rush. That would seem to suit Good Enough Pittsburgh.

As for St. Louis, time to lay the groundwork for the next economic reset. I hope locals will take the Post-Dispatch series to heart, in a constructive fashion. Also, I have no idea what might be already in the pipeline for this region. I'm not aware of any St. Louis buzz, but I'm not looking for it either.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mesofact Migration St. Louis

Chris Briem has more today about Pittsburgh's new migration paradigm. I have a few of my own thoughts on the recent spate of Census data, perhaps tomorrow. More pressing, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch launched a series on that region's economic competitiveness. Tim Logan kicks it all off with a look at workforce issues. Tim interviewed me via e-mail concerning initiatives designed to bring native talent back to their hometown. I don't know if any of my comments will make the cut, but I tried to point him in the direction of existing programs that might serve as a model for St. Louis. As for Logan's current piece, this passage stands out:

As president of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, Fleming spent a year just before the recession trying to woo a major employer to open a data center. Fleming wouldn't name the firm, but said it was "a Fortune 50" company that wanted to hire 1,500 people at good wages. Forty cities wanted the facility, and the company narrowed it down to two finalists — St. Louis and Raleigh, N.C.

The firm's consultants recommended St. Louis, Fleming said. But the company was worried about the region's slow growth, concerned that it couldn't get the workers here it would need over the years to come.

"Perception became reality," Fleming said. "And we lost the deal."

Could the company attract the necessary talent to St. Louis? Perception of place influences hard economic choices. Stereotypes matter, particularly to the most geographically mobile. Hence, NCR relocates from Dayton to Atlanta. Pitching a job to someone who hasn't been to either city is much easier if you are in Georgia as opposed to Ohio.

In terms of workforce development, I see the region's mesofacts as the greatest challenge. St. Louis might be much improved (I'd certainly welcome living there), but the rebranding efforts will be slow to take effect. It might be too late to take advantage of the latest reconfiguration of domestic migration patterns.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Pittsburghese Economy

Late last night, my wife and I were discussing the cultural anthropology of business. Economic globalization makes obvious the problems of lost in translation. But what about the differences within a country? The Economist with a German case study:

German dialects, formed by geography and political and religious fragmentation, express deep-seated cultural differences. These persist even though borders between petty princedoms are invisible (and often no longer audible). Even small differences count. Swabians share Baden-Württemberg with Badeners. Both spoke Alemannic dialects. But Swabians, who say Haus (house), have a bias against living in the neighbouring old grand duchy, where they say Huus.

That trade is livelier among regions that share a language is well known. The paper’s authors think they are the first to find a similar effect within a single language in one country. They measure migration not trade, because the data are better and cultural factors matter more. The best predictors are still Wenker’s [maps]. “Even when we don’t speak dialect, the cultural territory is still there,” says Alfred Lameli, one of the authors.

Does this confuse cause and effect? Regions may have similar dialects because earlier generations migrated and their descendants follow suit. To rule this out, the authors looked at the way communist East Germany weakened social links that encourage migration. After unification, they found, the old migration patterns came back, suggesting that migrants respond to cultural factors more than to social ties. It seems that neither television, nor the autobahn, nor even the Kaiser, has created a single country in Germany.

I like how migration is used as a surrogate for trade. It's very clever and illuminating in terms of the significance of path dependency. Concerning economic development, I think we tend to grossly underestimate the disparate cultural geography of the United States. Creating the better rational choice rarely has the intended effect.

That brings me to regional branding initiatives and a post at Reimagine Rural. Mike Knutson is exploring the power of storytelling and how it might help revitalize rural parts of the United States. A good storyteller understands her/his audience. Unless you figure out a way to deeply connect with the listener, viewer or reader; then you won't make an impact. It is hard to beat face-to-face interaction in terms of feedback and crafting your narrative given the new information.

A cheat (or "hack") is to exploit cultural common ground. Anyone adept at con(fidence) games can explain how it is done. Want to attract the Creative Class to your town or city? Then you must first understand placelessness:

But for the more vulnerable, the stakes are higher. Mexican laborers are encouraged to work in the United States but chased away by armed vigilantes. In India, northern migrants to coastal, cosmopolitan Mumbai are beaten by armed cadres of a sons-of-the-soil political movement. In China, untold millions of rural dwellers have been drawn to the city to make the roads and buildings to fuel the country’s boom. But, under the reigning hukou system of residency permits, they find themselves without the rights of locals in the big city, without guaranteed access to education and medical care, vulnerable at any time to being sent back to the village.

Officialdom struggles to process people without a place. Census forms don’t understand them. Commercial television and cinema create few characters in their image. Tax collectors insist that they choose one of their many countries as the real one. Politicians represent particular places, not ideas or industries or genders, and so if you are a Somalian-born American working in Paris for Nissan, you live in a democracy but without meaningful representation, with no public servants driven to take up your battles.

But the problem is not just external. The placeless often also suffer a gnawing tension within, a love-hate relationship with roots.

How well can Rural America enfranchise the placeless? That question gnawed at me while I read "Hollowing Out the Middle". In that book the placeless are characterized as a threat to the cultural integrity of these communities. As someone who is very sensitive to xenophobic narratives, I didn't see any space for outsiders in the policy recommendations. I'm not against local empowerment, but I don't see how rural towns can survive with such a perspective.

This is a handicap throughout the Rust Belt. I see it in my hometown of Erie. There is little to no interest in appealing to non-natives. This reinforces the negative feedback loop that Ed Morrison draws:

"Place develops a bad reputation" is the key mesofact here. How does your community overcome that stereotype? You must be an excellent con man, not a great storyteller.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Why Pissburgh Sucks

Aaron Renn has two new offerings about the better half of the two Rust Belts. He has some nice words for Pittsburgh while also noting the strong performance of Indianapolis. Of course, the good news is welcome. But that's not really the issue. Perception is what matters:

Most observers do not associate the Midwest with urban success, but quite the opposite in fact. But while there are plenty of places that are legitimately suffering, there are also plenty of success stories out there that don't always get the mindshare or press they deserve.

Bottom line, the success is ironic. Indianoplace? Surely you jest. Jest on. Know thyself.

Aaron serves up plenty of cold hard facts telling the other story about the Midwest. Despite his best efforts, the megaregional brand prevails. The depressed backwaters of globalization are boring. Not to mention, the weather is lousy. (One of these days, I'm going to tell my Randy Pausch story)

I've yet to drop the bombshell. This will be Data Point #2 in my attempt to triangulate the talent migration narrative for the Rust Belt:

“If we’re going to have our headquarters here, we want to support organisations that make Houston a better place to live,” Plank says. It is that attitude that has made talent intent on staying in Houston.

Mike Linn, executive chairman of Linn Energy, knows that first-hand. He decided in 2006 to move his Pennsylvania-based oil and gas company to Houston. “I couldn’t attract engineers and geologists to move to Pittsburgh. If you want to attract the most talented people to grow a company, Houston is the place to be,” he says.

His staff like running into others from the industry at soccer games, or while shopping or walking to meetings in Houston’s underground tunnel system. “It spurs conversations and deals,” he adds.

Linn, clearly at home in an expensive suit as he walks past paintings, sculptures and other treasures at the Museum of Fine Arts, felt welcome here. Despite being a newcomer, his involvement in the energy sector meant he was invited to serve on various boards that serve the local community, such as that of the museum – something, he said, that in places such as New York or Boston is reserved for sixth-generation residents.

In that extended passage from the Financial Times exists Pittsburgh's inherited misfortune and its shortcomings. Regarding the shortcomings, serendipity is not a strong suit of the city. This is a result of the legacy costs, the subtle snipe at the good old boys networks of Boston and NYC.

The inherited misfortune is that non-Rust Belt talent won't move there. This is the Ann Arbor crisis. The shadow of Detroit destroys all inmigration (but not immigration).

All of the above is why Pittsburgh won't follow Calgary. Calgary is Canada's Houston, just later to the game. What's Canada's Pittsburgh? Please don't say Sudbury.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Net Inmigration Pittsburgh

Update: In a subsequent repost, turns out that Pittsburgh did have net domestic inmigration in 1990-91. Let's just call it a 100-year flood for now.

I've been tracking all the US Census stories populating the Google news feed today. A business rag out of Buffalo provides a drop down menu for the 2000-2009 data. Net domestic outmigration is common for US cities. Pittsburgh is in good company. However, Pittsburgh is an outlier concerning natural decline. Not many cities have more people dying than being born. The bottom line is that Pittsburgh is shrinking.

I was wondering when Chris Briem would chime in with the Pittsburgh tale of the tape. Earlier than I expected:

There was one year around 1990-1991 when there was a net migration into the region overall... but overall migration includes international immigration which by construct is almost always a net positive for the region. But in terms of gaining more people than losing from elsewhere within the nation, you really have to go back much of a century to find a period when that has been true.

Almost 100 years of outmigration has come to an end, at least for now. Add to that the good news about Morgantown:

“Migration has always been the primary driver of population growth in these counties,” said Dr. Christiadi, a demographer at West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. “Migration into Berkeley and Jefferson counties has slowed considerably due to the recession occurring in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia economies. On the other hand, migration into Monongalia County remained strong in 2009. Albeit slowing, the county still saw a solid job growth of around 1.5 percent in 2009, and at the same time student enrollment into West Virginia University remained strong. These two reasons are why Monongalia County drew more migrants, allowing it to outpace population growth in Berkeley and Jefferson counties.”

For those of you not familiar with the economic geography of SW Pennsylvania, Morgantown orbits Pittsburgh. There is a contiguous stretch of vitality from Cranberry (home to Westinghouse's nuclear complex) all the way to West Virginia's booming college town. Not only that, the worm has turned at a most curious time. We spent all of 2009 in recession. Not your typical Rust Belt tale.

Most of these big cities, having been built on rivers or lakes, lie at the edge of states: think Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee. But state capitals, sited in days of poor roads and hard travel, usually lie in the center of states. Some state capitals – Columbus, Indianapolis, Des Moines – were never industrial centers but thrive now. But non-capitals, by and large, are suffering. No surprise: the capitals and non-capitals are where they are for totally different reasons – one political, the other economic – and never really had much to do with each other.

The state capitals aren't really Rust Belt cities. They never were. If you compare Pittsburgh to its like economic urban centers, then it really stands out as a strong performer and a unique redevelopment story. One can't overstate the tradition of outmigration. And don't forget the legacy of the early 80s exodus, which informs today's remarkable natural decline. Other cities tend to offset net domestic outmigration with relatively robust birth rates and immigration.

Think about a growing Pittsburgh population thanks to domestic inmigration. In my mind, that would complete the economic transformation started some 50-years ago. Pittsburgh has a new set of mesofacts.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cleveland Brain Drain

A few days ago, a fellow blogger sent to me a few links concerning the brain drain issue in Cleveland. The Cleveland Commitment is a project designed to get regional talent to return after seeing the world. I like the concept.

I have two tales in support of the Cleveland Commitment. First, a different take on the "forced" out-migration going on in Ireland:

An Australian, Mark Ballantine, who runs the Belavista restaurant next door, is the son of Sligo emigrants. He came back to visit family, fell in love with Strandhill and never left.

"The general consensus among everyone is doom and gloom at the moment," he said.

"A lot of young people ask me about Australia and the state of the economy there.

"The older guys who are going over have worked in the building trade but there is absolutely nothing happening here for them. The kids are different. They are going for the adventure."

The economic push factor is very real, but graduates might leave even if there were a few more job opportunities. To reinforce the point, consider some brain drain from the UAE:

“I often ask myself what I’m doing in China when I go back home and am reminded of the bountiful comforts of the UAE,” Amina says. “But the scale of the opportunity here is huge – everything is bigger, faster and crazier. Abu Dhabi has changed a lot, but I feel like my own life there would be predictable.”

The sisters say there’s a generational difference between the adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit that drew their parents to the UAE in search of a better life, and a more laid-back approach among their UAE-born peers, who are enjoying the fruits of their parents’ success. That’s exactly the course they wanted to escape.

The sisters, who studied at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, say all of their UAE high-school classmates took university courses abroad, with about 90 per cent returning to the UAE after graduation. The rest moved back to the countries that their parents had left a generation earlier, such as Lebanon, Jordan or Egypt, which now afford greater opportunity than in the past.

There are jobs at home, but young talent leaves anyway. I suppose someone might point out that life in the UAE is boring and that spicing up the downtown offerings might keep graduates from exploring the world. I think the article makes clear just how ridiculous the cool city concept is. The transient journey is about getting out of one's comfort zone, not finding a place more hip.

Yet this perspective persists, even at the highest levels of leadership. Back to Cleveland:

The [Beachwood High School] students decided to focus on reversing the “brain drain” for their project after interviewing [Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc.,] and other key Cleveland leaders, such as Toby Cosgrove, president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic; Charles Ratner, president and CEO of Forest City Enterprises; and Mayor Frank Jackson.

“We asked them about their views on Cleveland and what could be improved,” Stern said. “The major idea that came across was that we have this problem of ‘brain drain.’ ”

Crosby said what stood out in her mind from the interviews was that “Cleveland’s biggest problem was among Clevelanders and their view of (the city), not necessarily an outside view.”

And so the cycle continues ... The people at the helm of the region's economy perpetuate the brain drain myth and prescribe an attitude change so graduates won't leave. The solution to the fabricated problem isn't even novel. It has all been tried before. Which is why the Cleveland Commitment is so refreshing. A better understanding of the baseline is always welcome.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Economic Redevelopment Geography

Today, I want to dig a little deeper into the "Two Rust Belts". An article about the divergent fates of Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin sums up the disparity nicely:

“With the presence of the State Capitol, the UW and other government entities, relatively speaking Madison is weathering the recession better than many other regions,” says Tim Cooley, the city’s economic development director.

Indeed, the 20 cities surviving the best read like a list of college and government towns: Austin, Texas; Jackson, Miss.; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Baton Rouge, La., among others.

Compare that to Milwaukee, which Brookings lumps in with the decimated economies of Cleveland, Detroit and Youngstown, Ohio.

Government and gowns make for a winning combination, suggesting that policy has little to do with economic outcomes. I'm reminded of the tale about Boulder and Pueblo in Colorado. One city would get a prison and the other a state university. Both wanted the prison. Pueblo landed the deal and the rest is history. Unwittingly, Boulder got the better end of the bargain.

That's something to keep in mind as both Milwaukee and Detroit look to Pittsburgh as a model of redevelopment. The Steel City is now a college town. That's likely bad news for Detroit. Michigan already has two strong innovation engines in Lansing and Ann Arbor, which is where the investment should go. As for Milwaukee, I could see that place becoming a great student hub.

Lastly, I'll reiterate the competition geography. From the Greater Ohio Policy Center:

The next economy is not about competition between Cleveland and Cincinnati, or even with Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, but about Ohio positioning itself to compete with Shanghai and Mumbai. We lay out several arguments for why we have the potential to compete and what needs to be done to fulfill Ohio's promise.

If Cleveland tries to compete against Pittsburgh, then it will lose. Sorry, Drew Carey. The winning part of the Rust Belt already has a global orientation. The universities and centers of government attract talent from everywhere. However, that parochial mindset is hard to shake. Carin Rockland of Team NEO is indicative of the defeatist attitude that holds sway in Cleveland. Stealing business from Rust Belt neighbors is a tragedy of the commons.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Burgh Energy Report: Labor Mobility

Returning to Chris Briem's post about the curious case of Pittsburgh's peak labor force, I'm going to try my hand at analyzing the energy talent migration for Western PA. First and foremost, there aren't enough skilled workers in the industry. Second, energy employees tend to be highly geographically mobile. Most are ready to follow the economic booms wherever they may be. And having an official residence far from your place of work is not uncommon.

Concerning the Marcellus Play, local investment in workforce development is a huge risk. Not only is the legal geography uncertain, but the local geology poses some challenges:

In other "wet" gas formations like the Eagle Ford in Southwest Texas there's both existing gas processing capacity and existing connections to the U.S. Gulf Coast refining infrastructure, notes Nathan Ticatch, vice chairman of PetroLogistics. That gets the liquids, like ethane, to chemical plants that can use it to make products.

The Marcellus is both without the processing capacity and far away from any plants that can crack ethane and other liquids, notes Bruce Bilger, the head of global energy for Lazard. There's a pipeline project being considered to move such liquids to the Mid-Atlantic states where there may be a use for them, but it's "just on the drawing board."

The other options, says Ticatch, is a 1,500 mile pipeline to the Gulf refining complex. There's enough potential ethane production that would accompany Marcellus gas production to justify a project, but how long would it take for that production to become big enough for a pipeline to move forward?

Another option: construction of a power plant the runs on ethane as a fuel. That would be a hard sell in the middle of Pennsylvania coal country, however, particularly since the plant would need to run around the clock, Ticatch said.

That's a big missing piece to talent migration puzzle. The workforce needs are unclear, as are the logistics of efficiently getting the gas to market. I haven't even scratched the surface of the demand issues.

A study this month from the state's Center for Workforce Information & Analysis estimated Marcellus Shale jobs could grow 55 percent from 2006 to 2016 to more than 12,400 positions statewide. Marcellus jobs in north-central Pennsylvania could rise by 62 percent to 2,700.

Those are dramatic figures in a region where unemployment often hovers above the state average of 8.8 percent. The area has especially been hit hard in recent years by cuts in manufacturing and businesses related to the automobile industry.

Unemployment in Potter County, where Coudersport is located, was 10.8 percent in January, according to seasonally adjusted figures from the state. Among neighboring counties, the unemployment rate was 10.7 percent in McKean, 8.8 percent in Tioga and 9.9 percent in Lycoming.

Cameron County, the state's smallest county by population, has the worst unemployment — 16.9 percent of its civilian labor force of 2,300 is out of work.

Gas companies drilling wells bring in many experienced workers from out-of-state to staff Pennsylvania rigs. The influx has brought challenges to small towns once reserved for bigger communities, like rising rents and a lack of affordable housing.

Helene Nawrocki, the executive director of the Potter County Education Council who helped organize the Natural Gas Expo in Coudersport, would rather more of those jobs go to in-state residents.

What in-state applicants may be lacking, though, are the proper skills. Area high schools, colleges and technical schools have started discussing how to offer training.

A lot could change between now and 2016. Will the boom last long enough to allow for the development of a permanent workforce? Until the dust settles, I don't think unconventional gas will have much of an impact on Western Pennsylvania. In the near term, better to stick with that mobile workforce ready to go where the action is.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Great Recession Geography: 2009 Q4

Hot on the heels of the latest "MetroMonitor" from Brookings, I intended to track some of the media reactions to the data. The relatively good news continues for Pittsburgh. As for real estate boomtowns such as Las Vegas and Phoenix, the future looks bleak. At The Avenue, a Brookings analyst reaches an interesting geographic conclusion:

What’s remarkable is that the interregional differences in the recession’s impact affected metro areas’ long-term growth patterns. The recession contributed to a big growth gap between the hardest-hit auto-dependent Great Lakes metros and the rest of the Northeast and Midwest. Likewise, it drove a big wedge between the growth rates of the housing-bust Sub Belt metros and other Sun Belt metros. If those gaps persist, then the way we think about regional growth will change. We won’t be talking about Sun Belt and Snow Belt anymore. Instead, we’ll be talking about the two Sun Belts and the two Snow Belts.

The new perspective isn't set in stone, but I think the outcome is likely. The Great Recession is bringing to the surface economic patterns many years in the making. The broad and rust colored brush used to paint the entire Snow Belt has been inaccurate for quite a while. I'd say the same about the Sun Belt.

Perhaps the first step to transforming the mega-regional narrative is to disaggregate the Rust Belt. I contend that there are at least three sub-regions. It might make more sense to brand cities with this in mind. Instead of claiming your area is no longer part of the Rust Belt, define yourself as part of the "other" Rust Belt. Geographic stereotypes work on larger scales than city.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Great Recession Irony: Peak Labor Force Pittsburgh

My education in labor economics continues. While I blog about talent migration and workforce development, I'm no expert. Not even close. I write in order to learn about Rust Belt challenges and think about a productive way forward. Along the way, I've had to do a lot of reconciliation between my impression of the Rust Belt and the economic landscape stemming from various indicators. I make one ironic discovery after another.

I see a battle of two contrasting narratives. Next American City interviewed Bruce Katz and he makes the same point. The Rust Belt image is dominant. But take a closer look and what you find is a "Brain Belt". We'll see if that sticks. After Blue Belt (i.e. Great Lakes) and Green Belt, I'm skeptical that it will. Katz keeps trying.

Someone else who keeps trying (in less blunt terms) is Chris Briem. In almost every post, he challenges the popular perception of Pittsburgh. Today, he offers a stellar example:

BUT... what nobody seems to have noticed, not even the state itself, and what is something I need to think about a lot more... the county for the region's seasonally adjusted labor force in January came in at 1,240,100. If that is a robust number (by that I mean it does not get revised too much in coming months), I think it is the single largest count for the labor force in the region in the last 40 years... which is all I keep track of. I am pretty sure that would make it the single largest labor force count in the region's history.

Peruse the comments and you'll notice that I confused "labor force" with "employment". I misunderstood the historical profundity of the labor force number. Chris later added a graph that dramatically altered my perception of Pittsburgh.

Many things stand out to me. First, I'd note the steep rise in labor force during the latter half of the 70s. The exodus of the early 80s bottoms out in 1985 at what appears to be a 1974 level, wiping out all the gains later in that decade. By 1992, the workforce has recovered. Not exactly shrinking city, is it?

Considering the economic cycles, the Great Recession is remarkable in its lack of impact on the labor force numbers. Where's the crash? Perhaps that is indicative of the decline in geographic mobility occurring nationally. But that doesn't explain the increase, the historical high. More people in the Pittsburgh region are part of the workforce than ... ever. Pittsburgh is growing.

As Chris speculates, the likely culprit is energy. The Trib with an article that might shed further light on the surprising numbers:

Hill Group associates talked to representatives from industry, education, trade groups and other areas to compile the study. Discussions focused on what the stakeholders believe are growing industries, and their priorities for those industries.

The study concluded that employment in energy will grow fastest, but health care will generate the most new jobs. Financial services and insurance will grow, but only to recover lost employment during the recession, said the study, which didn't give projections.

"The study's findings make a lot of sense," said Range Resources Corp. spokesman Matt Pitzarella. The Fort Worth-based company is a major player in drilling natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale areas in Western Pennsylvania.

Pitzarella said there's a logical melding between the gas industry and manufacturing, because many manufacturers run their plants with the fuel. "Our industry uses state-of-the-art technology, so it makes sense that people with a natural gas and IT background would be well suited" for jobs, he said.

In a nutshell, there you have the workforce development challenges. A lot of that talent will come from Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado. I've noticed a growth in hits on my blog from those states, often concerning relocation.

Members of the Burgh Diaspora should read the article. It spells out the looming labor force shortages and how you might horn in on the action. Also, I hope that economic development wonks in neighboring communities (e.g. Youngstown and Erie) are paying attention.

Perhaps the labor force won't continue its spiky trajectory. But I don't see much of a chance for a collapse, either. I still think Calgary-like growth is in the cards. The only thing standing in the way is Hell with the lid off:

Anyone who remembers The Deer Hunter will know what Pittsburgh looks like: a gloomy rust-belt city, belching fire and fumes from steelworks, and home to a rough-hewn, working-class, six-pack culture. At the time of Vietnam, in the 1960s, it was already sliding into what looked like terminal decay. ...

... Returning to Pittsburgh, I reflected on the American talent for making a fortune in nuts and bolts and spending it on something grand. But first you have to find the dollars, and I remembered the mayor's prediction that property prices (very reasonable) were going to soar once the new convention centre was finished. I had seen a place in The Strip that would make a great bar, and I wondered whether I should try to raise a few thousand bucks. I already had a name for it. The Beer Hunter.

Still waiting for the mayor's prediction to come true.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Brain Drain Report: United States

Richard Florida is returning to fanning the flames of brain drain hysteria. He tries the exact same tactic that spawned his Creative Class empire. Behold the evidence:

From the beginning, I've been worried about this talent shift. Two things are happening. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are going after our best and brightest. In China and India, the best and the brightest are staying. One of the biggest tools foreign companies have is our business schools. All these great companies are coming to recruit. This shift is happening in real time right in front of our eyes. I see it in the Rotman School where I teach. ...

... I did the commencement address this year. I was blown away. In enormous numbers, the students were going to China, to India, to the Middle East. To a person, they said they found much more opportunity and possibility for career advancement over there. My jaw dropped. I literally could not believe how many kids.

As I walked across the campus of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University one delightful spring day, I came upon a table filled with young people chatting and enjoying the spectacular weather. Several had identical blue T-shirts with "Trilogy@CMU" written across them---Trilogy being an Austin, Texas-based software company with a reputation for recruiting our top students. I walked over to the table. "Are you guys here to recruit?" I asked. "No, absolutely not," they replied adamantly. "We're not recruiters. We're just hangin' out, playing a little Frisbee with our friends." How interesting, I thought. They've come to campus on a workday, all the way from Austin, just to hang out with some new friends.

I noticed one member of the group sitting slouched over on the grass, dressed in a tank top. This young man had spiked multi-colored hair, full-body tattoos, and multiple piercings in his ears. An obvious slacker, I thought, probably in a band. "So what is your story?" I asked. "Hey man, I just signed on with these guys." In fact, as I would later learn, he was a gifted student who had inked the highest-paying deal of any graduating student in the history of his department, right at that table on the grass, with the recruiters who do not "recruit."

What a change from my own college days, just a little more than 20 years ago, when students would put on their dressiest clothes and carefully hide any counterculture tendencies to prove that they could fit in with the company. Today, apparently, it's the company trying to fit in with the students. In fact, Trilogy had wined and dined him over margarita parties in Pittsburgh and flown him to Austin for private parties in hip nightspots and aboard company boats. When I called the people who had recruited him to ask why, they answered, "That's easy. We wanted him because he's a rock star."

There was Pittsburgh's brain drain happening right in front of Florida's eyes.

Florida is oblivious to the current geographic mobility trend because it doesn't fit his narrative. The world is retreating into a nationalist shell. Canadian demographers understand that the country desperately needs foreign-born talent. However, the natives have other ideas. Furthermore, many of provinces are more concerned about brain drain to the United States than poaching H-1B visa refugees.

At stake is the out-migration of educated and ambitious people from India and China. There's already been a serious backlash against such migrants in Australia. The main threat is the return home of entrepreneurs (or would be entrepreneurs).

Does that mean less talent will make the journey to the United States? I think the brain circulation "scare" is real enough. For ambitious Anglophones, the US will remain a key emigration destination. A report about Israel's brain drain defines the landscape:

In its examination of the brain drain to the U.S., the European Commission (2003) reports that 73% of the 15,000 Europeans who studied for their PhD in the States between 1991 and 2000 plan to remain in America. If Europeans are concerned about the migration of their academics to the States, then Israelis should be nothing less than alarmed.

As he did in Pittsburgh, Florida overstates the case. More bluntly, he is and was wrong about the out-migration threat. As for in-migration, I'd bet that even the brightest Indians and Chinese will still come. But how long will they stay? That's the crux of the current debate about how immigration reform could promote economic growth.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Next Pittsburgh: Waterloo

Waterloo (Ontario) has been through a few economic transformations. The region is on the cusp of another one. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh is the model:

If you don’t believe entrepreneurs can help turn a city around, talk to Tom Murphy. From 1994 to 2005, he was mayor of Pittsburgh, a place once considered an economic writeoff. In the 1980s, Pittsburgh’s dominant steel industry collapsed, sending unemployment above 18 per cent. Some 120,000 workers lost their jobs in shuttered mills, and soup kitchens sprang up across the city.

Today, the Pennsylvania city has reinvented itself as a hub for medical research, robotics, high-tech manufacturing and financial services. Murphy was there for much of that transformation, and he thinks there are things Waterloo Region can do to spark a renaissance not based around big manufacturing operations.

“The biggest challenge we had was we were big corporations and big unions, and not very entrepreneurial,” Murphy said from his office in Washington DC, where he’s now a resident expert in urban renewal for the Urban Land Institute.

Pittsburgh changed that by providing entrepreneurs with money — and lots of it. It drew venture capital firms to the city by taking advantage of a program where state pension funds matched investments in local companies. This gave investors an incentive to pour money into promising companies in the former steel town, and it kept young, bright entrepreneurs from leaving the city.

Murphy boasts there are now 17 venture capital firms headquartered in western Pennsylvania. In the 1980s, there were none.

This historical narrative puts a different spin on my understanding of the Pittsburgh redevelopment story. In about a generation, the city took a great leap forward. I'm not sure that is accurate.

Murphy would know a lot more about it than I. I see the reinvention as 50-60 years in the making. Pittsburgh's entrepreneurial economy is a talent dividend from investments in human capital that predated Murphy's tenure as mayor. Furthermore, the spectacular growth of venture capital that Murphy mentions was a macro trend.

Murphy's Pittsburgh renaissance comes across as a bit disingenuous. I'm not trying to undermine his legacy. I think he deserves more credit than locals typically allow. But is this sound advice for Waterloo? Can that region really reinvent itself a la Pittsburgh in such a short span of time? I'm skeptical.

Friday, March 12, 2010

More Mesofacts: Celluloid Pittsburgh

From a movie review of "She's Out of My League":

SIGHTS: Forget Molly’s wardrobe; Pittsburgh looks absolutely stunning in this movie. Zowee! The obligatory dating montages are enhanced by a handful of shots of Pittsburgh’s skyline or other natural sights that are often captured at the beautiful time of dusk. I had no idea the city looked that great.
Score: 7

My wife and I enjoy watching old movies on TCM, usually on Saturday afternoons when the kids take a nap. A few weeks ago, "Summertime" was the matinée. The film was a boon to the Venice tourist industry. The TCM host stated that one of the most popular destinations was the spot where Katherine Hepburn's character fell into the canal. I didn't think much of the scene, but it must have made a big impression on other viewers.

Sense of place can be difficult to articulate and geographic stereotypes are remarkably durable. One film can change all of that and it doesn't have to be a gem from David Lean. I've often brought up what "Slacker" did for Austin. Perhaps "She's Out of My League" will be the next "Sleepless in Seattle". Concerning migration, movies matter.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

More Ironic Brain Drain: North Carolina

I intended to take this story about a depressed textile mill town in North Carolina and hammer home the postindustrial blues gripping the Sun Belt. There is a stunning example of Rust Belt stereotyping in that article. But you'll have to read it for yourself.

This post is about the other North Carolina: Cool cities, innovation, and boomtowns. This is the Sun Belt we celebrate. However, all is not well in the Research Triangle:

In the western part of the Triangle, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and UNC have banded together and are holding a public forum March 15 at which they'll ask residents to nominate the Chapel Hill/ Carrboro team and provide feedback via an online survey. Chapel Hill resident Brian Russell, founder of the local Internet advocacy nonprofit Orange Networking, also started a Facebook fan page, called Bring Google Fiber to Chapel Hill & Carrboro, N.C., the day after Google's announcement. It now has more than 700 members, including mayors of both Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

"Google is an incredibly deep-pocketed partner that could make everything that I've been advocating for last five years in this town to happen, and in my lifetime, and hopefully before my kid gets to school," said Russell, whose 11-month old son, Izzy, has regularly updated Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Russell said high-speed Internet could keep UNC-Chapel Hill start-ups and entrepreneurial students in town, benefiting the local economy and curbing brain drain. Russell houses some of those innovators at Carrboro Creative Coworking, a small business that rents work space to micro-businesses and other independent ventures.

Chapel Hill is struggling to retain its talent. Perhaps Joe Cortright or Rebecca Ryan can come to the college town's rescue if Google decides to wire another city. North Carolina needs a lot of help. The well educated are fleeing the state in droves, a brain drain crisis of epic proportions.

The Research Triangle needs to do a better job of providing what Generation Y wants. The state needs to be more start up/venture capital friendly, not Google Fiber. Otherwise, the flight of the creative class will continue.

Revitalizing China's Rust Belt

Rust Belt cities reap what they sow. Bad policy. Corrupt politicians. High taxes. Lousy schools. Parochialism. The list is endless. Most of the opinions on the matter are misplaced and useless. Everywhere you look, and I mean globally, the tale of woe is the same. In China:

Premier Wen Jiabao's speech to parliament emphasized the "revitalization" of northeast China's struggling old industrial zones and depleted mining belts, and Fuxin is emblematic.

Coal once employed 60 percent of its total workforce, but after decades of overmining, the huge Haizhou mine in the center of the city finally ran dry and was declared bankrupt in 2005.

Its air already thick with sulphur, Fuxin was now also struggling with crippling rates of unemployment, and thousands of residents had to evacuate as geologists worked to prevent the estates built on the mine's banks from collapsing.

The plight of Fuxin, a tough, ramshackle city built around the biggest open-cast coal mine and largest thermal power plant in Asia, helped gather the momentum to launch the country's 2004 campaign to "rejuvenate" the moribund mining regions of the industrial northeast.

Located on the chilly frontier between Liaoning and Inner Mongolia and designated one of China's 44 official "resource-depleted cities", it was the site of a pilot government "diversification" programme in 2006, Pan said.

"We have achieved a lot in the four years since, but this is a long historical process -- Germany's Ruhr Valley, England's Manchester and Pittsburgh in the United States are typical resource cities that have already completed their economic transformation, but it took them more than 50 years," he said.

Given the economic history, urban revitalization doesn't get much better (if at all) than Pittsburgh. Among Rust Belt cities, there is a range of development. The geographic context makes little difference. The agency is limited.

That's not to say that Pittsburgh is above reproach. Just that some of the more scathing criticisms aren't grounded in reality. The benchmarks are idealistic, not pragmatic. The grass isn't greener elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Weird Pittsburgh Connection

I troll for stories about Pittsburgh outside of PA media. Most of them are inconsequential. Some are instructive. A few I don't understand:

It’s hard to imagine anyone calling the multitalented Bill Shannon “regular,” but the world-renowned Nashville-born dancer, best known for his moves with crutches (maybe you’ve seen his Visa commercial), bristles at any suggestion that his art has emerged from his disability – Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease, with which he was diagnosed at the age of 5 and which has a profound effect on hip development.

“Somebody wrote in New York magazine one time: ‘Disability is the soul of his career.’ And I almost threw up,” Shannon, 39, says from New York, where he is developing a new work (he lives on an urban farm in Pittsburgh).

Toronto newspaper. New York City location. Pittsburgh urban farm?

War For Talent: Isolationism

Grad school geopolitics 101 continues to serve me well:

Isolationist sentiment in the United States has skyrocketed to the highest level in decades, according to an analysis of survey data by the Pew Research Center. In November, 49 percent of survey respondents agreed the United States should "mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." That’s up from 42 percent in 2005, 30 percent in December 2002, and a mere 18 percent in 1964 (the earliest year with data available).

Immigration reform advocates who seek to liberalize the system best take notice. Sorry, Silicon Valley.

Ironic Brain Drain

Someone in Rochester, Minnesota is worried about young talent leaving the area:

Yes, the University of Minnesota-Rochester offers great potential for high-school graduates. Health care is a growing field, just not in Rochester.

Recently a young family man heard about Dubuque, Iowa, which is being held up by many as a model of economic growth. To paraphrase this young man: “What am I doing here? Dubuque is only an hour and a half away.”

Another young man is working on a four-year business degree but he has no intentions of finishing it while still in Rochester. To again paraphrase, “There is nothing here for me.”

Retaining college graduates have become a critical issue to moving the entire Midwest forward. Kansas, North Dakota and Nebraska have all launched initiatives to try to entice recent graduates to stay. There's even competition within the region, with South Dakota angling for workers from Minnesota, and Iowa running billboard ads to try to lure young professionals out of Chicago. ...

... Currently, only a third of University of Iowa alumni still live in the state. People who do return tend to come back in their 30s when they want to raise a family. But Carlson says this leaves a huge gap in Iowa's workforce. And he says if the state is going to be economically competitive, Des Moines, Dubuque, Sioux City, need to focus more on the needs of young 20-something professionals.

In January of 2009, I noticed something cooking in Dubuque. Rochester is feeling the heat.

Rust Belt Chic: Pittsburgh Limerence

Serendipity struck this morning in the form of an old acquaintance reinventing himself once again. Via my brother, I learned that a mutual friend is a practitioner of the green arts. Looking at a few samples of the work, I thought it very Rust Belt Chic. From the Green Art Manifesto:

We see ourselves representing a revival of the 1930’s arts and crafts movement, and like those dedicated artists before us, we create functional art — practical tools transformed into enduring aesthetic objects — that is handcrafted and affordable. You’ve seen us on the streets and farmers markets of New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta, selling our dresses sewn from recycled umbrellas and solar clocks milled from reclaimed wine tanks. What was our predecessors’ Depression Art is now our Recession Art.

As green artists we regard the rarefied “high” arts as long lost to the hollow galleries of commerce targeting only elites. We find diminishing inspiration in the 90 year reign of conceptual art, marked by its rejection of technical prowess, craftmanship, and social use. A movement sprung from Duchamp’s brilliance now wallows in the production lines of Koons and Hirst commissioning porcelain Michael Jackson sculptures never touched by the artist. For our generation, these precious efforts withered and died decades ago.

From the ashes of the old, our generation feels a fresh breeze animating our nascent green arts movement. We seek to blur the lines between craft and modern art, building pieces on the conceptual foundations of modernism — process, performance, and politics — while consciously limiting ourselves to sustainable, organic and recycled materials.

I think the aesthetic expressed courses through recycled cities such as Pittsburgh. Call it an urban utilitarianism. There is a rejection of greenfield economic development as well as a quest for authenticity. Implicit is a romantic blue collar image and German work ethic. We make things (to paraphrase Hunter Morrison).

Further meditating on the art, I'm more convinced that Rust Belt Chic is a Generation X meme. This demographic is the Rust Belt's Lost Tribe. We're Janus-faced, seeing the future in the past. Come to think of it, we easily switch hats and perspectives. Just when you figure out the Cold War World, the Berlin Wall falls. Thus, Justin Kownacki's confession of being a jerk (i.e. "hate-filled bastard") deeply resonated with me:

15-year old environmental activist Hannah Freedman took the stage and delivered an eloquent, well-rehearsed, mildly convincing argument for the importance of youth activism. I was impressed by her chutzpah, and I was clapping at all the times when I was supposed to be clapping.

And then I noticed the body language of the couple in front of me.

Slumped. Stoic. Slightly pained. They looked as though they wanted to be anywhere but here, and they projected a stark resentment of everything Hannah — and, by extension, Ignite itself — stood for.

This momentarily irritated me, and I thought about reveling in my ethical superiority for being able to appreciate something as fundamentally galvanizing as youth activism.

But then I tried something different: I adopted (what I presumed was) this couple’s point of view.

I sat there, slumped and indifferent, to see how it would feel to resent a teenager for having the temerity to care about her own future.

Putting that post through the prism of aforementioned green art, I connected the feelings to a glowing review of Aaron Renn (Urbanophile):

“Aaron Renn is one of the keenest, and most impartial, observers of America’s urban scene. Urbanophile epitomizes the basic common sense of America’s heartland cities – something sorely missed in the coast-dominated discussion of metropolitan areas and their future.” – Joel Kotkin, Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050

The word "impartial" gets my attention. I read Aaron as easily assuming the flip side of any pressing urban issue. I like this approach. Similarly, I've turned brain drain inside out. My views on globalization have done a 180 in about a decade's time. Ideology is as whimsical as fashion. You see brownfield; I see greenfield.

Rust Belt Chic.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Postindustrial South

Assuming we don't suffer a double dip Great Recession (still a possibility), we might be able to tease out some of the changes to US economic geography. Edward Glaeser is all in on Atlanta's resurgence:

First, Atlanta benefits from the fact that it is the dominant agglomeration in the region. The continuing vitality of large cities is a remarkable feature of our age and Atlanta benefits from that fact.

Glaeser also rehashes his human capital argument. The top of the urban hierarchy is stable. If anyone has an idea about new winners and losers, then they are keeping those guesses close to the vest. A glaring exception is Joel Kotkin, but I want to remain in the New South for today's post.

Back to Glaeser's comments about Atlanta ...

Like Chicago, Atlanta towers over its regional urban competitors. Will the city siphon off talent from struggling Charlotte? More positively, will growth provide spillover benefits to former manufacturing powers such as Chattanooga and Greenville (SC)?

The Industrial South doesn't receive the same notoriety as the Rust Belt. See this cookie cutter piece about Youngstown. However, the geographic scope of Great Recession coverage reveals many hard-hit Southern towns:

Manufacturing jobs represent about a quarter of the highest-paying jobs in the county, research economist Donald Schunk said Friday in front of County Council members, Georgetown City Council and the Georgetown Board of Education.

The average annual wage in the county was $32,300 in 2008, and the average manufacturing annual wage was $54,429 in 2008.

When manufacturing jobs are lost they are hard to replace, Schunk said. ...

... The struggle to keep and add manufacturing jobs started before the economic recession hit, he said.

The three primary factors have been the globalization of industry, the automation of plants, and the switch of consumer spending from goods to spending on services, lowering the demand for goods, he said.

Schunk was recently quoted in a [USA Today article] about towns on the verge of becoming ghost towns due to the loss of manufacturing. The city of Georgetown was cited as a city on the brink.

Because of its Sun Belt location, we don't think of South Carolina as a center for manufacturing. It is a Rust Belt state with a few pockets of prosperity. South Carolina is a Right to Work state, yet Georgetown could easily be in Ohio (a pro-union state and proud of it). Our stereotypes for economic geography paint Georgetown's woes as ironic. What we expect is Boeing moving manufacturing from higher cost Everett to lower cost Charleston.

We tend to focus on state policy in order to explain the rise of the Sun Belt and the decline of the Rust Belt. Places such as Georgetown undermine this case. Regardless of location, cities with high legacy costs (i.e. traditional manufacturing centers) are in dire straits. The winners emerging from this group of losers are riding eds and meds.

However your region does it, moving away from an over-dependence on manufacturing is key. Circling back to the brownfield towns toiling in Atlanta's shadow, Chattanooga and Greenville would make for two good bets to surprise as the global economy recovers. As for Georgetown, I expect that talent to move to Charleston (another good bet for the Post-Great Recession).

Monday, March 08, 2010

Burgh Energy Report: Bloggers Wanted Part II

By way of a following to Saturday's post about the need for bloggers dedicated to energy issues in SW PA (or the entire TechBelt), I am very impressed with today's stream of energy news out of the Houston Chronicle. I use Google Reader and the first post on Monday was a concise compilation of stories. Think of it as what the coverage could and should be for the Pittsburgh energy industry.

“America’s Natural Gas Alliance applauds the extraordinary work spearheaded by Governor Ritter, policymakers, energy companies and environmentalists to sharply reduce air pollutants in Colorado by replacing older coal-fired power plants with facilities fueled by natural gas and other lower-emitting energy sources. This plan will not only improve Colorado’s environment, create jobs and boost the economy, but it will also serve as a model for other states and for our country.”

“Natural gas already plays a key role in Colorado’s clean-energy economy, serving as a low-carbon source of base-load electricity generation and supporting use of wind and solar. According to an IHS Global Insight study, natural gas supports 137,000 Colorado jobs and $18.3 billion in annual contributions to the state’s economy. Colorado has the third-largest reserves of natural gas and is the seventh-largest producer of natural gas in the nation.

“Natural gas is twice as clean as coal and abundant right here in America, where we have enough domestic supplies to power our nation for generations. This forward-thinking public-private collaboration makes clear that there are viable, commercial and meaningful clean-energy solutions that can be achieved very quickly, while also supporting economic growth.

“This is an historic decision for the state of Colorado and hopefully a new way of thinking for the rest of our nation.”

I added the emphasis, highlighting a transition that could happen in the Rust Belt. One of the problems facing the natural gas industry is a lack of demand to eat up all the new supply coming on line. A new generation of gas-fired electricity production would go a long way to enhancing the viability of drilling in Pennsylvania and support the emerging energy economy.

The information keeps streaming across my desktop and is overwhelming (and fascinating). Pittsburgh is on the cusp of becoming the Houston of the Northeast and the Midwest. If I'm Erie, I start thinking about this landscape change and how I can plug into it.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Mesofacts: Geographic Stereotypes

A little over a week ago, the Post-Gazette published a retrospective of Pittsburgh's most livable designation in 1985. That's how things looked from the top of Rand McNally's "Places Rated Almanac." How about the view from the bottom? Yuba City:

Many people hadn't even realized the region was an MSA, said Chuck Smith, Sutter County spokesman who worked as a reporter for the Appeal-Democrat in 1985. Yuba-Sutter had only crossed the 100,000 population threshold five years earlier in the U.S. Census.

"That was the first surprise for people — 'We're a metropolitan area?'" Smith said. "And the surprise for Marysville people was: 'And they're calling it Yuba City?'"

MSA names are based on the city with the largest population in the area, which was and still is Yuba City.

The ranking deeply insulted area residents, and on the 25th anniversary of the publication, bruised egos still remain when Rand McNally enters discussions. ...

... Many residents said the ranking system was flawed.

Just look at Pittsburgh, says Bill Fuller, who was working in the Yuba City administrator's office at the time. No logical ranking would place it as a superior place to live than other major areas, such as San Francisco or Seattle, he said.

Folks in Yuba-Sutter immediately dismissed the rankings because of the use of "Yuba City" to represent the entire region. Rand McNally didn't know their town at all. Again, the anger distinguishes between information and knowledge. Rankings are a poor proxy for sense of place. Thus the high value put on urban or regional branding.

However, the livability rankings should allow us to challenge geographic stereotypes. Bill Fuller's crack about Pittsburgh demonstrates that traditional perception trumps data analysis. Migration is illogical. This is good news for shrinking cities and rural towns. As anyone involved in marketing can tell you, subjective positions change all the time. However, those involved in civic branding don't seem to have a good grasp of geography. In that void are the rankings, which do little to change our mental maps.

The borough lies an easy six miles west of Pittsburgh. Its picture-perfect Main Street looks as though it has been lifted from a model railroad. And on a hill overlooking it all sits a landmark that townspeople hope will draw visitors to this hamlet of about 8,000, a population that because of forces of nature and industry is nearly a third less than its peak in the 1940s. ...

...The borough grew along with the steel mills, the last of which closed nearly 50 years ago.

"A lot of people left town," said Irene Sekelik, a volunteer at the Historical Society of Carnegie. "We're so close to downtown Pittsburgh . . . so I don't know what keeps people away."

Inside the society's first-floor exhibit area is an amazingly detailed model of Main Street, meant to resemble how the town looked in the 1930s and '40s. "It was just jammed with people," Sekelik said of the street's sidewalks. "It was a thriving time."

Today, fewer people walk those same paths, particularly after a devastating flood in 2004 forced some businesses to close. Still, Carnegie's boosters hold out hope for the years to come.

Some artists have moved to the area, Sekelik said, and Forbes thinks the revival at the library may serve as the "linchpin" to bring more visitors to town. In addition to the reopening of the Civil War room, this Presidents' Day weekend's festivities include a display of 100 photographs of Lincoln that belong to Pittsburgh photographer Norman Schumm. They range in date from 1847 to 1865 and were developed from a set of negatives from photojournalist and author Stefan Lorant.

Forbes envisions similar-themed weekends in the future, with events such as reenactments, lectures and concerts at the library's music hall. For now, though, I was happy to enjoy the quiet charms of Carnegie: Watching the snow swirl off beautiful houses, admiring the view of the library from below and walking slowly up Main Street.

Though it would like to be, Carnegie isn't on the radar. The Washington Post travel story makes the borough inviting, worth the trip for residents of Greater DC. Carnegie has strong assets, but is struggling to get onto the map. Journalism will help and Carnegie is lucky. Burgh expats exploring the move home will give it a chance.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Burgh Energy Report: Bloggers Wanted

Knowledge Problem passed along some news about a new energy blogger at the Houston Chronicle. That got me to thinking about the energy scene in Pittsburgh and the lack of bloggers covering the subject. The occasional post at Null Space is about it. At least, that's all I've noticed.

I'm out of my depth, but I've dabbled enough to realize that there is plenty of fodder for a dedicated blog. The exploitation of the Marcellus Play has caught most people unaware because it developed so quickly. Many dots still need to be connected.

For example, what is the relationship between the different forms of energy tech? There is a Texas-sized tension between the natural gas and wind power industries. But you won't find much, if any, evidence of such a discussion going on in Ohio where the governor is touting the wonders of clean tech innovation in his state. There is bound to be some zero-sum reckoning in the near future. Then again, I could be wrong.

I'm also noticing more informal information bubbling up in the social media sphere that isn't finding any expression in the mainstream. On Facebook, a fellow who helped to design LNG tankers back in the day talked about the export prospects for natural gas. To tell you that the prospects are excellent would be an understatement. However, the word from Texas (again) might cast some doubt on how fast and big the boom will be.

There are a host of pressing questions that no one seems to be asking. I haven't even touched on the environmental debate. That conversation would benefit from less hysteria and more grounded information. We need a blogger who can be trusted to address both sides of the issue. Any takers?

Friday, March 05, 2010

International Geographic Mobility Of Women

Generally, women are less geographically mobile than men. In the United States, this cultivates a captive labor market. Thus, women make less than men for doing the same job. Of course, geographic mobility isn't the only variable that helps to explain the discrepancy.

Developing countries are currently seeing a “brain drain” where the educated women are emigrating at alarming rates in search of advancement and fulfilling work. Not only does this deprive those societies of their talent, it also squanders the significant investment made in these women in terms of publicly financed education and training. Institutions in the developed world are experiencing a similar flight of talent when opportunities are lacking. In both circumstances, an organization-wide culture shift is required to nurture an environment that is friendly to women and encourages their advancement. Those organizations that have taken a systemic approach to the issue have reaped the rewards in greater growth and higher returns.

The implication is that better opportunities for women in the homeland would plug the brain drain. There's probably some truth to that, but the Deloitte report doesn't offer a granular enough analysis to earn that conclusion. The bottom line is that investing in human capital leads to more geographic mobility. Knowledge begets migration.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Made In Ohio

I don't know about you, but Site Selection magazine messes with my mental map of the Rust Belt. Ohio is king, of the entire United States. In a good way. Seriously. Which puts the Youngstown Renaissance in proper perspective:

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Distance Trust Geopolitics

Busy day, so I'll leave you with something to chew:

The proposal, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, combines in a single piece of legislation provisions from around the world: whistle-blower laws and rules about Internet providers from the United States; source protection laws from Belgium; freedom of information laws from Estonia and Scotland, among others; and New York State’s law to counteract “libel tourism,” the practice of suing in courts, like Britain’s, where journalists have the hardest time prevailing.

“We would become the inverse of a tax haven,” said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Parliament and a sponsor of the initiative. “They are trying to make everything opaque. We are trying to make it transparent.”

For many observers, this legislation represents a direct reversal of recent Icelandic history. Secret dealings by a few banks in Iceland, combined with a lack of regulation and oversight, led to calamitous debts that were nine times the gross domestic product. In response, Iceland would institutionalize the most aggressive sunshine laws possible. ...

... The pitch was, in part, practical: much the way businesses relocate to countries like the Cayman Islands or Switzerland to take advantage of legal protections and shield laws for bank accounts, publications would relocate to Iceland — or at least relocate their computer servers that publish their Web sites — in order to get the benefits, and gain access to Iceland’s plentiful energy resources.

“Iceland could become an ideal environment for Internet-based international media and publishers to register their services, start-ups, data centers and human rights organizations,” reads the Web site, which explains the proposal and answers questions about it. “It could be a lever for the economy and create new work employment opportunities.”

I've had a few days to meditate on the idea, but it still blows my mind.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Rust Belt Chic: Schenectady

Technically, Erie (PA) is my hometown. Pittsburgh is my favorite American city. But the part of the Rust Belt I know best is Upstate New York, Schenectady to be more specific. I spent most of my childhood in the small hamlet of Charlton, which was (probably still is) a bedroom community to the Electric City.

My father was an engineer at GE, which is where he also worked in Erie. The trip home for Thanksgiving along the New York State Thruway was a lesson in economic transformation. The decline was obvious even from the seat of a speeding station wagon. But I had little sense of the woes in Schenectady. I fondly remember researching school projects at the public library, watching a variety of world class entertainment at the Proctors Theater, and going to hockey games at Union College. I never felt a sense of danger walking the streets of downtown.

For many years, Union College tried to conceal this crippled manufacturing city — for better or worse, its college town — from high school seniors.

The strangely candid Encyclopedia of Union College History, published in 2003, confessed that “even today, the College directs prospective students and their parents” along an “an indirect, scenic route that avoids the quicker but meaner streets of the aging industrial center.”

Still, there was no hiding the obvious. In a recent survey that Union College conducted of high school applicants who were admitted but chose to go elsewhere, the No. 1 reason they cited was Schenectady. But now the college is trying a new pitch, which is, in short: Come See Schenectady.

Related to yesterday's post about place mesofacts, Schenectady's bad reputation is hard to shake. My family left the area in the mid-80s. Once again, my father was able to stay one step ahead of economic collapse and I completed high school at a rural/suburban union school southeast of Burlington, Vermont. I never experienced the depths of the urban blight back in the Capital District. But I never felt a yearn to return, either.

Reading about Union College's embrace of its Rust Belt environs is exciting:

Changing perceptions is slow work. In a survey by The Princeton Review, Union College placed second in the nation for “strained town-gown relations.” But during freshman orientation last fall, the college offered its first urban experience as an alternative to the usual camping retreat, and 35 students signed up to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and the Boys and Girls Club.

A group of 16 students who are part of an independent study project led by an economics professor, Harold Fried, plan to open a combined boutique and coffeehouse downtown this year. A student group called the Union-Schenectady Alliance is planning its third annual “Show Me Schenectady” day, which in the past has successfully enticed students off campus with $5 worth of coupons redeemable at downtown businesses.

I want to see firsthand what is going on in the city of my youth. The sense I get from the article is one of remaking perceived liabilities into assets. It's an experiment and reminds me of Pittsburgh. Erie might consider a field trip to gather a few redevelopment ideas. I suspect we are witnessing a Rust Belt trend (e.g. Clark University and Worcester). This kind of college experience is relatively unique. Anyone know of a few studies that research this kind of urban economic redevelopment?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Mesofacts Don't Speak For Themselves

Yesterday, I dipped my blogger big toe into the world of mesofacts. If the pace of change is slow enough, then most people miss the transformation. Perceptions become outdated, but still rule our behavior. How can we become more aware of such phenomena? Better yet, how can we make people appreciate an improved place shrouded in a fog of despair?

A good sounding board for exploring the above questions is a graphic published in Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Concerning educational attainment, Pittsburgh is struggling. The hope is for a big jump showing up in the next US Census. That's unlikely. Pittsburgh's improving human capital is of the mesofact variety. A glance at the numbers results in the overlooking of the region's impressive talent dividend.

Pittsburgh's improving educational attainment has taken so long as to evade detection. Most people only see the dramatic population decline. They wouldn't think to look for evidence of brain gain. More notable are the boomtowns that are benefiting from strong in-migration. That change happens over a shorter timespan and jumps onto the radar.

This has serious policy implications. Political cycles turnover too quickly for the consideration of mesofacts. In this regard, the Talent Dividend initiative is seriously flawed. The return on investment will take time. Some cities, such as Pittsburgh, already have the improvement in the pipeline. The talent dividend will appear whether or not you follow Joe Cortright's prescription. But if your region hasn't been on the talent dividend bandwagon for a few decades, then your city is probably screwed. (Short of an in-migration miracle)