Thursday, January 19, 2012

Place And Economic Development

Is "cool" an economic development strategy? A few of my blog posts are syndicated at Sustainable Cities Collective. Sometimes the title gets tweaked in a way that highlights a controversy. Such is the value of a good editor. That was the case with my most recent work about Pittsburgh versus Portland. The larger issue of place-based planning and economic development provoked a comment that I want to address at Burgh Diaspora:

Nothing much has changed about Portland. It is a great city that succeeds, in part, by virtue of the constant infusion of talented, creative, young people willing (or able) to work part-time service jobs while they pursue "a real job" or figure out their next career steps.  It was true in 1996-98 when I lived there and worked on NW 23rd, in a McMenamins and even in a natural foods store.  It's all cliche and true.  I stayed there until I got my first "real job" in Sacramento.

Because it has worked for Portland, many other cities mistakenly believe it is what will work for them.  The "Portland Way" isn't an off-the-shelf remedy for what ails other cities.  Having said that, what has worked for Portland it has never made the kickoff to the conversation be about economic development.  It might have been an underlying theme, but not the focus.  It has succeeded by focusing on creating a great place to live.  It was a long-term approach that worked.  Too many places, including my current location in the Southeastern US, focus on the short-term jolts of luring companies from other parts of the country to its turf, rather than committing itself to all of the things that make it a great place.

I know "place" is an unfocused term, but if you use that as the starting point of discussion, I think you would be surprised with the results.  It requires a local commitment to a long-term process - often this struggles against political reality.  Focusing on place-based techniques that improve streetscapes, parks, transportation, architecture, art and other public-space infrastructure would be a good start.

Emphasis added. I've included the entire comment because I don't want any confusion about the context. I'm ignoring the defense of Portland. To paraphrase the passage in bold, the focus on making a cool place instead of economic development is the root of Portland's success. I'd rather not get into the reduction of economic development as only smokestack chasing. That's a separate discussion. THE goal is to make a great place. Build it and they will come.

Portland built it and they did come. Portland's success is defined by the inmigration of talent. The most geographically mobile voted with their feet. Portland is a winner. Game over.

Instead of comparing Pittsburgh with Portland, I offer up Oklahoma City. You might remember OKC from yesterday's post. Like Pittsburgh and Rochester, it is a shithole. Today, CEOs for Cities gives Mayor Mick Cornett some love:

For his part, Oklahoma City is a success story, having famously raised taxes to pay for amenities designed to improve quality of life and attract young, college-educated people to the city. The Kauffman Foundation recently named it the most entrepreneurial city in the country with the most start-ups per capita.

I encourage you to click through on the link to the Kauffman Foundation ranking. I also suggest listening to the NPR interview with Mayor Cornett. I understand the connection between OKC's place-making investment and attracting talent. What is missing is how attracting talent translates into becoming "the most entrepreneurial city in the country." If you did click on the link to the Kauffman Foundation rankings, you would learn more about than just #1 OKC:

"Historically, fast-growing small companies have led the U.S. economy out of recession. And according to our latest [FSB/Zogby International] poll, nearly half of all small business owners would consider moving if doing so would help their companies.... Location matters more than ever before. The Great Recession redrew the map of America." Other cities topping each list include: big cities (1 million+), Pittsburgh, PA at no. 2 and Raleigh-Cary, NC at no. 3; medium cities (250K to 1 million), Lafayette, LA no. 2 and Omaha, NE no. 3; and small cities (fewer than 250K), Bismarck, North Dakota at no. 2 and Fargo, North Dakota at no. 3.

The top of the list isn't exactly a collection of talent migration winners. I offer that all these places do a great job of developing people. That's the common thread. Place-making has tremendous value if it helps to develop people. What, exactly, does your region plan to do with the talent it retains and attracts? Or, is the big bump in the IRS migration data in and of itself cause for celebration?


Erik said...

Great post Jim! I'm coming across this one and your site late in the game, but I like it a lot.

I have been an advocate of placemaking as a way to increase ones quality of life, but I have also been looking for a link to how it helps with economic development. In the cases of brick, banners, and planters - it doesn't in most cases.

Living in Peoria, Illinois amongst some beautiful scenery but heavy industry it is this love hate. One aspect leads to jobs while the other is put on hold and has lead to much of the usual sprawl.

Our downtown is stagnate and there is much talk of what will bring it back. Certain elements of placemaking are great, but at the end of the day that in and of itself isn't going to lead us to victory. We tried the amenities arms race in the 80's & 90's and that didn't work.

I agree that "cool" alone can't do, but there has to be something more.

Jim Russell said...

The question I would ask, "For personal economic development, why would someone move to Peoria?"