Friday, March 11, 2011

Rust Belt Population Fetish

The Rust Belt is shrinking. The hysteria in the wake of the US Census release is the result of misinformation and misunderstanding. An exodus isn't necessarily to blame for population decline. And net outmigration doesn't necessarily mean brain drain. Finally, today's negative publicity says more about shocks a generation ago than it does policy over the last decade.

Migration myths abound and inform bad policy. A good example of the confusion can be found over at Rust Wire:

Our problem is access to talent. We have high-paying positions open for patent attorneys in the software and semiconductor space. Even though it is one of the best hiring environments for IP firms in 40 years, we cannot fill these positions. Most qualified candidates live out of state and simply will not move here, even though they are willing to relocate to other cities. Our recruiters are very blunt. They say it is almost impossible to recruit to Michigan without paying big premiums above competitive salaries on the coasts. ...

... There’s a simple reason why many people don’t want to live here: it’s an unpleasant place because most of it is visually unattractive and because it is lacking in quality living options other than tract suburbia. Some might call this poor “quality of life.” A better term might be poor “quality of place.” In Metro Detroit, we have built a very bad physical place. We don’t have charming, vibrant cities and we don’t have open space.

Talent attraction is front and center. Michigan cannot draw the workers companies need. As far as Rust Belt struggles are concerned, that's progressive thinking. However, the explanation as to why Michigan fails to attract talent is wrong.

The gist is that if Detroit were more like San Francisco, all the brains would be moving there. In particular, suburban sprawl is spotlighted as the culprit. Towards the end of the letter, the dreaded brain drain is invoked:

The people who put together that website must live in a different cultural universe from the high income/high education people streaming out of Michigan for New York, Chicago, and California. Not only is there no plan to address these issues, I fear that the public and their elected leaders in Michigan don’t even recognize the problem or want change.

Why people leave isn't necessarily the same as why people don't come to Michigan. Lumping talent attraction in with talent retention is a mistake. I'd start there, disaggregating the migration numbers, before seeking a solution. Cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are domestic migration losers. What's wrong with them?

Regarding the Michigan talent attraction issue, I've posted frequently on the subject. As Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) argued, Detroit has a powerful brand. But the region doesn't leverage this advantage. Instead, it tries to undo what it perceives as a negative stereotype. If you don't believe Renn, then perhaps you might consider what Patti Smith said last year:

When she was done answering Lethem's questions, she picked up her guitar and sang a song about William Blake. Then she answered questions from the audience. One woman asked if it was still possible for a young artist to come to New York City and do what young artists did when Smith was starting out.

Patti recalled coming to New York without money, when it was "down and out," and you could get a cheap apartment and "build a whole community of transvestites," artists or writers, or whatever.

Today, she said, "New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie... New York City has been taken away from you... So my advice is: Find a new city."

While doing some research for cityLAB Pittsburgh, I became aware of anxiety in Brooklyn about retaining creative talent. Stoking those fears was an article in the Wall Street Journal:

Last month, artists Michael Di Liberto and Sunia Boneham moved into a two-story, three-bedroom house in Cleveland's Collinwood neighborhood, where about 220 homes out of 5,000 sit vacant and boarded up. They lined their walls with Ms. Boneham's large, neon-hued canvases, turned a spare bedroom into a graphic-design studio and made the attic a rehearsal space for their band, Arte Povera.

The couple used to live in New York, but they were drawn to Cleveland by cheap rent and the creative possibilities of a city in transition. "It seemed real alive and cool," said Mr. Di Liberto.

Given what I know about Rust Belt cities, I figured that either (both) Di Liberto or Boneham was familiar with Cleveland and what it has to offer. Di Liberto is from Northeast Ohio and is one of the thousands of Rust Belt refugees who repatriate every year. This is an established pathway of talent migration and Detroit could do a much better job of enhancing this trend.

I'm not the only one evangelizing this idea. A new dawn for St. Louis:

So are there currently any coordinated efforts to engage the St. Louis diaspora in ways that are intended to bring them back to the region? There probably are, but I'm not aware of them, and there is surely room for more. Outreach along these lines does not seem that difficult to implement, and would probably pay some dividends over the long haul (for example, between now and the next census). It is just one of many "low investment, high yield" efforts that, if sustained over a long period of time, could end up making a big difference in perceptions of (and hopefully the population of) St. Louis.

There are variety of applications for such an initiative. Tell me about your talent needs and I'll engineer the migration. The best part is that Rust Belt Chic is in right now. Both Detroit and St. Louis has what young talent wants. It's much more than an inexpensive cost of living and dirt cheap real estate. The primary impediment to more inmigration is perception. Get to work selling your city's unique brand.

And remember ... People develop, not places.

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