(the below article appeared on the online Wall Street Journal Thursday – I am surprised Trenton wasn’t represented among “the dead.”)
‘FASTEST DYING CITIES’ MEET FOR A LIVELY TALK
By DOUGLAS BELKIN
DAYTON, Ohio — Here’s an idea for saving Rust Belt cities: Tell bloggers and radio stations to stop calling your town a basket case.
That was one suggestion from representatives of eight of the 10 cities labeled last year as America’s fastest dying. They met at the Dayton Convention Center last weekend to swap ideas about how to halt the long skid that’s turned cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y., into shorthand for dystopia.
The city representatives lunched on $6 sloppy Joes and commiserated through Power Point strategy sessions: Lure back former residents, entice entrepreneurs and artists, convert blighted pockets into parkland.
What emerged was a sense of desperation over the difficulty of rebounding from both real problems — declining populations, dwindling tax bases — and perceived woes.
Valarie McCall expressed frustration at marketing a city that still echoed the image of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire. “That was 1969,” said Ms. McCall, Cleveland’s chief of governmental affairs. “Come on, I wasn’t even born then.”
Last year, Forbes.com used long-term trends of unemployment, population loss and economic output to devise a list of “America’s Fastest Dying Cities.” A few months later, Peter Benkendorf was eating chicken tacos when he hatched the idea for the symposium.
Mr. Benkendorf, a 47-year-old Dayton resident, said he was angry the article ignored efforts by the cities to attract small businesses and entrepreneurs. He thinks these cities are poised for reinvention.
“For a long time, people thought granddaddy was going to come back and make everything all right again,” said Mr. Benkendorf, referring to the manufacturers that decades ago built the economies of cities like Dayton. “People have begun to realize that’s not going to happen.”
One was college student Joe Sack, 22. “It’s like a gambling addict [trying] to help an alcoholic,” he said while at work in a coffee shop. “It’s hard to see what they can learn from each other.”
Dayton, which has a population of 155,000, has since 1970 has lost more than 1,000 manufacturing jobs a year and a third of its residents. NCR — the cash-register and ATM maker — once employed more than 20,000 here. This summer the company said it would move its headquarters and 1,000 jobs to Georgia.
The cities’ meeting began Saturday with Forbes reporter Joshua Zumbrun telling the city representatives and about 100 visitors that his story was among his most popular. Then he apologized for any hurt feelings.
Representatives of Dayton, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo; Canton and Youngstown, Ohio; Flint, Mich.; and Charleston, W.Va., took turns talking about their plans. There was little discussion of how cities might pay for the initiatives.
Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin ran to the podium for her talk. “If you look under the surface, you will see that we are developing a boutique city,” she said. She didn’t elaborate on what she meant.
But the city is working with hospitals, universities and a U.S. Air Force base to rebuild neighborhoods. About 500 abandoned structures will be razed this year with $3.5 million in federal stimulus money. Neighbors can annex the empty lots or the city will plant prairie grass and call them parks, said John Gower, Dayton’s director of planning and community development.
“We can’t go back and recreate the neighborhoods of the 1950s and 1960s, but we have a huge opportunity to create a new form for our cities,” Mr. Gower said. “People want to live in beautiful places near green space.”
In a historic reversal, the cities are embracing plans that emphasize growing smaller. In Buffalo, where more than a third of the students drop out of high school, Michael Gainer, executive director of Buffalo ReUse, is putting young people to work dismantling some of the thousands of abandoned homes and selling the scrap materials.
A councilman from Charleston described how the city lured “The Worlds Strongest Man Competition.” It was shown several times on ESPN, she said.
Matt Bach, public relations manager for Flint’s convention and visitors bureau, said the image most closely linked to Flint was a scene from Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger and Me”: a woman skinning a rabbit to make a fur coat. The Dayton audience groaned in sympathy.
Mr. Bach described how he is fighting back. After a Canadian radio station aired a “This Ain’t Flint” campaign to cheer up listeners depressed about Ottawa’s economy, Mr. Bach orchestrated a letter-writing and email effort to stop the ads. The station awarded Flint more than $60,000 in free radio time that Flint used to air spots about vacationing in Michigan.
Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams talked of helping startup companies. This month, his city was named by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the 10 best in the U.S. to start a business.
Mr. Williams, a tall 37-year-old with a background in banking, argued that some who have moved out of Youngstown may consider moving back. A University of Pittsburgh demographer is tracking former residents with the idea of telling them about the city’s new direction. “We don’t want to force anything on them,” said John Slanina, a Youngstown native working on the project. “But we want people to know, ‘Hey, Youngstown is changing, take a look.'”
Mr. Slanina said he’s optimistic about the future of his hometown. But for now he lives in Columbus, Ohio, and has no plans to move back.
Write to Douglas Belkin at email@example.com