Saturday, May 15, 2010

More Amenities Migration

I'm trying to think outside the agglomeration economies box. What are the alternatives to Spiky World? Richard Florida offers up Pittsburgh:

One response to the problems of rusted-out industrial cities such as Detroit has been a new urban reclamation effort called "shrinking cities." The idea, perhaps inspired by Pittsburgh, has caught on in smaller cities in the American Midwest, such as Youngstown, Ohio, and Flint, Michigan, and their European counterparts. The basic notion is that older industrial cities need not grow to improve. They can be better places by making do with less, by focusing on improvements in the quality of life for their residents, and by bringing their level of infrastructure and housing into line with their smaller populations. A June 2009 story in the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph bore the wince-inducing headline "U.S. Cities May Have to Be Bulldozed to Survive."

I don't think of Pittsburgh as a shrinking cities paragon. The region is highly resistant to the idea. While the world is infatuated with feral houses of Detroit, that city is looking to Youngstown for ideas. Mayor Jay Williams and Defend Youngstown Phil Kidd are the mad scientists working in America's crucible of urban innovation.

Pittsburgh isn't a story of successful triage. Sure, you can find a number of good examples of it going on in the region. But that's not why President Obama rewarded the city with the G-20. Pittsburgh is a shining example of economic transformation and growth still matters, a lot.

Rust Belt cities represent geographic arbitrage opportunities. These are the places talent can go when it no longer needs to be located in a center of agglomeration. You can see that pattern emerging in the Brookings dismantling of our traditional regional constructs.

I imagine the above as the next step in the better understood amenities migration. For decades, real estate refugees have fled global cities in search of a better quality of life. Certainly, the biggest cities are getting bigger. But other places further down the urban hierarchy are becoming centers of talent:

TechStars, a three-month mentorship program that has taken place in an old gym in Boulder since 2007, has spurred the start-up community’s growth. Of the first 10 companies that went through the program, eight received venture funding, five were acquired by bigger companies and three are still active. But David Cohen, the founder of TechStars, is equally proud of one of its failures, because he said it showed how supportive Boulder’s tech community is. After EventVue, which built online communities for conferences, shut down, job offers from other tech companies came pouring in.

Almost half of the 30 companies that have gone through the TechStars program have decided to stay in town. Several of them share space — tiny offices and a big common room, kitchen and deck — above Aji, a Latin American restaurant downtown.

One is Everlater, for making travel journals on the Web. Its founders, Nate Abbott and Natty Zola, moved to Boulder to save money by living in their parents’ basements after quitting their jobs on Wall Street. But when they arrived, Mr. Zola said, “We realized it was an incredible place to start a company.”

Richard Florida is quoted in that article. I don't know if he recognizes the following or not, but Boulder is an exception to the World is Spiky rule. Abbott and Zola left New York City to find riches in the Front Range of Colorado. You don't have to be in Big City to do big things. I imagine this New York Times piece will inspire more people to drop everything and head to Boulder. It should also give struggling communities hope.

Okay, not everyplace has Boulder's amenities. You also might note that there is a familial connection that facilitated the relocation from NYC to Boulder. Regardless, hundreds of thousands of talented people are leaving cities like Chicago and San Francisco in search of experiences and opportunities found in cities like Pittsburgh and Des Moines. The challenge is figuring out how to get "on world's radar":

Meanwhile, it's "raining" real estate deals and cash flows are better as rental rates dropped due to more supply, he says. "People can cover all their expenses and realize a profit. They couldn't do that two years ago. The market was too hot." So, it is a good time to buy, he says. "But it's not a get-rich-quick scheme. You don't do that in real estate. You're looking at a five year window." Of the places to invest right now, Calgary is number one -- pushing Edmonton down to second place on Campbell's list, which he updates regularly. "It's on the radar. Everyone knows about Calgary," he says, noting that includes overseas, where he was recently speaking to investors in London, England.

Calgary is another interior boomtown that more and more people are beginning to notice. The move away from traditional centers of growth is part of the "Great Reset". Granted, Calgary was growing rapidly before all the bubbles burst. But supplanting hot spot Vancouver is saying something. Not to mention there's Edmonton at number two. Edmonton?

Obviously, energy is the driving force behind all the interest and growth. The point being that Toronto on top isn't set in stone. You don't have throw up your hands in despair given the agglomeration economies that continue benefit the alpha global cities. The rules of globalization are changing. Beware, Big Apple.

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