Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rust Belt Legacy Benefits

Shrinking cities are withering under the weight of crushing legacy costs. The municipal debt from a more prosperous time is now split among a much smaller number of people. I don't mean to sweep this problem under the rug. I tend to see legacy costs as the Rust Belt's greatest asset:

Like theaters in Cleveland and Sacramento, Shea’s in Buffalo has become important because of its reliable subscribers — 13,100 for each of its six one-week Broadway tours this year. An impressive 85 percent renew annually; the subscriber base insures that 55 percent of seats are bought even before tickets go on general sale.

“The industry has noticed how good it is to play Buffalo,” said Stuart Oken, a lead producer of “The Addams Family,” who pointed out that the show made more money per performance here than in Toronto, Miami or any other city since the tour began in September. He predicted that the tour would make a profit because of moneymakers like Buffalo and return some of the money lost on Broadway to investors.

Jeffrey Seller, a Tony Award-winning producer whose musicals “Rent,” “Avenue Q” and “In the Heights” all played Shea’s, described the theater as a “miracle of the Rust Belt,” given that the Buffalo economy has struggled mightily through both good times and bad.

Theater would seem to be in Buffalo's blood. World class culture finds a welcome home in Rust Belt cities thanks to those bygone days. Once exposed, residents develop a taste. Going to Shea's is a tradition and a matter of civic pride. Buffalo does a better job of supporting the arts than Toronto, a vastly larger metro.

As far as urban experiences go, Buffalo offers a lot of bang for your buck. You don't need to have big time population to have big time culture. At least, that's true in the Rust Belt. That's the density dividend, quality over quantity.

A good metaphor for the Rise of the Rust Belt Class is manufacturing. Production remains constant or even grows despite the shrinking labor numbers. One brain replaces the brawn of ten. The minus nine finds service jobs in Charlotte and Joel Kotkin makes a big deal about migration to the Sun Belt.

The worm has turned and now people are moving to Pittsburgh because prospects are better than Chicago:

Times are tough in Michigan. He had spent his adult life bartending and managing restaurants, mostly in his home state and some in suburban Chicago, but hadn't worked in over a year.

He and Mattie have been together nine years and have two children, Brenden, 8, and Samantha, 1. They'd often talked of moving to Pittsburgh; Mr. Sunie has been an avid fan of the city's teams since he was 8, and the couple had visited for a Penguins game in 2005.

So he suggested to Mattie one day that he move to Pittsburgh and find a job, and that they reunite the family once he's settled. Mattie wasn't keen on the idea at first, but after talking with her parents and realizing they were spinning their wheels in Michigan, they went all in.

The move isn't quite a blind (i.e. pioneer) migration. It's still a big roll of the dice to go to Pittsburgh without a job in hand. Thanks to all the legacy benefits, Pittsburgh is booming. The city can absorb job seekers appearing on its doorstep.

Because Pittsburgh's economy is booming, don't expect the population to boom. In fact, all Rust Belt cities need to put such aspirations for a return of the 1950s aside. Focus on better educating the workforce already living there. Invest in the most troubled neighborhoods. Stop spending so much on arresting brain drain and the latest place branding campaign. It's a good time be in Buffalo.

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