Friday, July 22, 2011

Reinventing Newark

Among Rust Belt boosters, Newark Mayor Cory Booker is a star. His approach and policies serve as a model for urban advocates trying to reinvent their own city. Like being the next Silicon Valley (or Pittsburgh), the aim is to be the next Newark. I want to take a critical look at the Cory Booker Paradigm because it fits within the theme of this week's blog posts. From National Public Radio:

CONAN: Oh, thank you. As you look ahead, a lot of people would think just a few years ago that Newark was - the one thing Newark had plenty of was problems.

BOOKER: Absolutely, but I think that that's the challenge in America is we've got to begin to understand that our vision for not what is but what can be has always what's propelled our country forward. And there are a lot of people in Newark and from around the country - I remember talking to Michael Porter, who's in charge of something called the Institute for Initiative for Competitive Inner Cities, who used to tell me that Newark has probably more competitive advantage than most cities in America, and tremendous things could happen there if you think strategically about how to leverage its assets: the port region that it has, airport, deep-water seaport, the five major colleges and universities, the hospitals and its proximity to the capital of our global economy, New York City.

Emphasis added. Generically, I suppose any city admiring Newark could leverage its own assets. But only one place can claim to be "the capital of our global economy". In fact, the Booker Effect seems to have blessed every city near New York. Would he be as famous if he was the CEO of Cleveland?

That's not to say that Cory Booker isn't special or a force of nature. Among the cohort of cities in close proximity to New York, Newark still stands out. If we are to learn lessons from Booker, then we must understand the policy variance within that controlled geography.

I won't tackle that tall order today. I want to understand why the proximity to New York City matters. Why is it a competitive advantage?

Porter lists the physical assets of Newark. As I discussed yesterday, it is a place-based approach to economic development. The magic of New York is how well it develops people. Newark provides a relatively inexpensive way to gain access to that benefit. Smart urban planning can help facilitate that relationship. Policy is important.

What kind of policy? For one, enhancing the kind of "information-sharing networks" that Vivek Wadhwa mentions in his critique of Porter's cluster theory. Still, the prescription is vague. I would start with tracing talent migration. New York City has a significant human capital exchange with a number of metros, most of them in close proximity. Cities further away, such as Cleveland, also have substantial churn with the capital of our global economy.

Over the last few months, I've been working with Global Cleveland and Strategic Urban Solutions to develop a blueprint to take advantage of the above talent flow. The goal is to leverage the asset of outmigration to New York. You read that correctly: "Asset of outmigration".

Using the lens of people-based economic development, I'm able to mimic Newark's main competitive advantage (proximity to NYC) in Cleveland, almost 500 miles away. For practitioners of place-based economic development, outmigration is an anathema. It is brain drain. It must be stopped. Never mind that relocation is a great way to develop talent. Community interests subvert individual interests. Non-competes are standard practice. Innovation and entrepreneurship suffer.

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