World & Nation

What’s the key to turning around Rust Belt cities?

APphoto_Buffalo-New Beginning
On June 6, iron workers guide the final steel beam into place at the site of the Clinical Sciences Center under construction by Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. The project is among more than $4.4 billion worth of development announced in the former Rust Belt city since 2012, bolstering hope for an economic recovery.
(Carolyn Thompson / AP)

Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities are making a comeback as young people sick of high prices in the big city look for more manageable places to live and cities capitalize on attracting a new generation of employers.

In Cleveland, the news that LeBron James was moving back to his hometown and that the city was selected to host the 2016 Republican national convention, has put a spotlight not only on Cleveland’s resurgence, but on renewal efforts in other Rust Belt cities, including Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y.

Even Detroit, struggling through a tough bankruptcy, has launched “The Detroit Homecoming,” an invitation event that will try to attract expats back to Detroit for a weekend in September.

“It’s about time to come home, to see the real Detroit,” the website for Detroit Homecoming proclaims. “We want to bring ‘expatriates’ — whether they were born in Detroit or attended school in the region — back to the city to explore the opportunities to invest, engage and reshape the city and its story in its post bankruptcy era.”


Richey Piiparinen, a senior research associated with the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, offered a primer in the Rust Belt renewal, explaining that back in the 1970s people with college degrees lived near big cities. But as certain industries became hyper-focused in different areas -- think tech in Silicon Valley and San Francisco -- college-educated workers often had to move away for jobs.

It’s why urban studies theorist Richard Florida calls cities “spiky,” because they are big drivers of global economic activity.

With the advent of the Internet, companies found that they could locate nearly anywhere, and that it was cheaper to locate in smaller cities. Start-ups,  especially, found that they could locate in cities that already hosted industries like healthcare, technology or biotech. And the young people working for them lived in the urban core, rather than the suburbs.

Some cities effectively prepared for this change, Piiparinen said. Pittsburgh’s educational institutions, for example, produced developers with strong tech skills who could create start-ups in Pittsburgh, especially in the areas of robotics. Buffalo just completed a clinical sciences building, part of $4.4 billion of medicine-related development announced in 2012. Cleveland’s new strengths are rooted in medical device companies, largely because of the Cleveland Clinic, which started doing heart research and married manufacturing and health sciences.


Even as it lost population, Cleveland began to somewhat improve, because it attracted highly educated residents. Cleveland added 40,000 people with college degrees from 2006 to 2012, with 41% of those gains in the 25- to 34-year old age group, Piiparinen said.

It might be more of a struggle for Detroit, which has not been as successful preparing for the “spiky” future, Piiparinen said.

“It’s not like the whole Rust Belt and every city is going to win,” he said. “There’s still going to be winners and losers within the region.”

“Detroit was run by the Big Three, so it didn’t really have industry diversification,” he said. Autos ruled in Detroit, until they failed, and the city didn’t have much in place to replace it.

The ability for a city to have “brain gain” rather than “brain drain” is important. When young professionals move to cities, they often bring high incomes and spending money. Science and healthcare employment in Cleveland grew by 25% from 2003 to 2013, according to Piiparinen’s research, and at the same time, the city’s per capita income grew from $33,359 to $44,775.

Detroit may have awhile to go. Its college degree, 25-34-year-old demographic is still low. Only 11.8% of Detroiters in that age group had a college degree in 2012, according to census data; 21.5% of Clevelanders in that age group had a college degree, compared to 53.2% in Pittsburgh.

If there’s one bright spot for Detroit, it’s that residents aren’t expecting their city to be back to the way it was. Instead, their sights are set on something a little smaller.

“We’re hoping for something like Pittsburgh, Cleveland,” said Martin Andary, a Detroit native and Detroit firefighter. “I have friends who go to Pittsburgh and say it’s actually nicer than you think.”


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