This piece originally appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
For decades, Rust Belt cities like Cleveland have been defined by loss—of population, industry, and homes. Loss is part of the regional DNA. To fight back against decline often means to close ranks. Rust Belt cities do this through protectionist policies that are not only ineffective, but counterproductive.
Take “Border Guard Bob”, a figure dreamed up by Pittsburgh marketers in the late 1990’s. The character, fancied as a friendly, uniformed watchman—think Andy Griffith in a hard hat—was to be featured in ads meant to convince the native sons and daughters to stay in the region. But the campaign was scrapped, due to the “transparently desperate image” it conjured.
For Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem, the idea behind Border Guard Bob was just bad policy. “This is the same logic that inspired the East Germans to build a wall around Berlin and is likely to have as much success in the long-run,” wrote Briem.
Talent retention strategies top the bill here in Cleveland as well. One problem: retaining residents isn’t the issue. Specifically, a recent white paper I co-authored entitled “From Balkanized Cleveland to Global Cleveland” showed the Cleveland metro ranked 35th in the number or people leaving a region from 2000 to 2010, despite being the 28th largest metro in the country. So, we are pretty good at retaining residents. However, the Cleveland metro ranked 44th in the number of residents moving into the region. In other words, Cleveland “shrinks” not because a glut of people leaving, but because of a lack of folks arriving.
This lack of newcomers is reflected in the percentage of locals who are native born. Seventy-five percent of Ohioans were born in Ohio, ranking the state in the bottom three of birthplace diversity along with Louisiana and Michigan. The percentage of Greater Clevelanders born in Ohio is also 75%, far less than the 30% to 60% range of native-born residents in the metros of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Now, why is this a problem? Defend Cleveland, right?
In today’s economy, nativism “don’t hunt”. Because migration is economic development. With migration comes an increased flow of capital. We are talking intellectual capital, human capital, and financial capital. With migration comes a deepening of a city’s idea bank and an enrichment of its global connectivity.
Notes venture capitalist Brad Feld: “The cities that have the most movement in and out of them are the most vibrant.”
Without migration, a city such as Cleveland can get stagnant, like a fish tank without an oxygen pump. When this occurs, the conversation stalls. Ideas exist in an echo chamber. The outlook turns inward and becomes parochial and defensive. Policies turn protectionist. Meanwhile, the world passes by.
“Globalization didn’t kill Detroit,” writes economic development expert Jim Russell. “Globalization avoided Detroit.”
Does this mean Cleveland is destined to backwater status? No. In fact there is momentum happening in terms of the regional connectivity.
For instance, the aforementioned white paper showed that the largest feeders of net population growth into Cuyahoga County were from places outside Ohio, including Chicago, Brooklyn, Queens, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Greater Boston. It is hypothesized that many of these migrants are the young adults fueling Cleveland’s revival in the emergent neighborhoods of Ohio City, Tremont, Edgewater, Detroit Shoreway, and University Circle, as well as the suburbs of Lakewood and Cleveland Hts. In fact, the latest Census numbers showed that nearly 50% of out-of-state movers into Cleveland were between the ages of 20 and 34.
Given the region’s future rests on its ability to be more ‘demographically dynamic”, efforts must be made to examine these and other migration patterns further. Who are the individuals coming into Greater Cleveland? Where are they coming from and why? Is the “pull” due to affordability, family reasons, economic opportunity, jobs? With a good understanding of “the who, the where, and the why”, decision makers can begin the process of “how” to increase the pipeline of talent coming into the region.
The goal is to alter the area’s birth place diversity and worker profile so Cleveland, like Pittsburgh, can recalibrate its economy from less brawn to more brain. “Finding ways to draw knowledge work to manufacturing centers remains critically important to [regional] metros,” notes Cleveland Fed economist Joel Elvery.
Naturally, as a native Clevelander, this is not to say those of us rooted in our Rust Belt community don’t matter. Far from it. It is only to acknowledge that without the embrace of change, the natives become restless. Because a narrative of loss is a song we are all sick of singing.
Bio: Richey Piiparinen is a Research Fellow at the Maxine Goodman Levine College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. He is a native Clevelander raising a family in Old Brooklyn.