The Challenge and Opportunity in Mid-Sized Cities


New Orleans       One report after another these days seems to be raising the alarm that there is a huge sucking sound, as Ross Perot once spoke of another matter, as certain big, bigger, and best cities are amalgamating jobs, income, and people, especially the young, bright, and ambitious and leaving the rest of the country and its cities behind.

When Amazon originally picked the Washington, DC and New York area for its fabled second headquarters, there were anguished cries of disappointment that some other cities were not chosen that could have been transformed by the economic and population injection.  The very fact that Amazon was looking for a second city outside of Seattle also spoke to the rough edges dragging around cities that are making some winners and others losers in the competition for people and jobs.  Seattle didn’t have the housing, had lost affordability, was at the edge of its capacity in the Amazon argument.  Even the elements Amazon had on its shopping list were elite preferences for the human resources department in the company:  mass transit, world-class airports and universities, and amenities in food, entertainment and the like.  The executive cities like DC, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, Vancouver, Toronto, London, Berlin, all have these kinds of characteristics.

Now new reports are indicating that mid-size and smaller cities are still growing in most cases, but are losing ground economically to the mega-magnet cities.  Cost of living is less, housing costs are reasonable, unemployment is low, but income between these cities is in many cases falling as the gap widens with the big cities.  Eduardo Porter, a much-missed economics columnist for the New York Times, reported on this phenomenon through the lens of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but found the same issues in other mid-sized metro areas like Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Bangor, Maine.  I could add Little Rock, El Paso, Birmingham, and Tampa, and as easily could cite the challenges in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Indianapolis.  I had dinner recently with someone who had just come from Jackson, Mississippi, and found little hope there for progress, and what is the real future for Shreveport and Baton Rouge, if these are the only items on the list for the future in a tech-dominated economy.

Yet, in these challenges, there are some certain opportunities.  In the ACORN archives recently, I ran into an old memorandum I had written about mid-sized cities, and why they represented outstanding targets for organizing in some ways because they were not the biggest cities in the country.  They were manageable.  One could more quickly see and operate the levers of power, contacts, and institutions and see and analyze the impacts of organizational actions.  The political access was closer to reach.  It was easier to see mistakes and adapt more quickly, and the errors were less fatal.  Admittedly, we called these “takeover” cities in our usual rash of exuberance and ambition, but couched in that concept were all of these factors as well as the shorter timeline to realize change.  The entry costs for experiments and innovation are less, and they are more scalable.

I’m not surprised that an ACORN could grow almost fifty years ago from roots in a Little Rock or that our affiliates other countries like France burst out from a Grenoble rather than Paris and in England from a Bristol, rather than London.  Channeling Horace Greely, I would argue “go there, young men and women!”  They are raw and ripe for the picking.