Government Reform

Shifting Government for Shrinking Cities

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The November issue of Governing has a very interesting article by Christopher Swope–and I note it not because of the libertarian bonafides of either the magazine, which has none, or of the article in and of itself–about how governments like that of Youngstown, Ohio, are coping with the fact that everyone with any sense is running like hell out of town.

It involves giving up on some traditional government programs like low-income housing tax credits and subsidies–as Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams said, "A brand-new house constructed between two houses that need to be demolished — we're not doing anybody a favor"–in favor of some new ones, like spending lots of local government bucks on demolishing abandoned properties. Also, some taking advantage of federal mandates such as those that require developers to create new wetlands for old wetlands their development destroys–Youngstown is full of land just begging to be turned back into swamp, and thanks to government mandates, that can be worth gold to developers.

The summation of the problem that many governments of smaller (and getting even smaller) industrial cities in the midwest are facing:

Instead of accepting decline and trying to manage it in a deliberate way, mayors tend to gravitate toward revitalization plans that involve building convention centers and sports arenas and subsidizing hotels and shopping malls. They also get into desperate fights with the Census Bureau over population estimates and counting methodology. "How many politicians in America will stand on a soapbox and say, 'I'm going to lead this city and we're going to shrink it?' " asks Joseph Schilling, a professor at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute.

The point of the story is: a lot of them are going to have to. As a study of how bureaucrats try to adjust to changing circumstances, well worth a read.

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  1. I think the abandonment of small towns for bigger cities is a net positive. Sure, the details are painful, but big cities are better when they’re dense, and fewer disparate small towns means less human encroachment on wildlife.

  2. I’ve been advocating government demolition for years. Rather than spend the money trying to save it – knock the shit down.

  3. mayors tend to gravitate toward revitalization plans that involve building convention centers and sports arenas and subsidizing hotels and shopping malls

    *coughcoughHouseofBluescoughcoughBrownsStadiumcoughcough*

  4. “Instead of accepting decline and trying to manage it in a deliberate way”

    Here’s the crux of the problem for libertarians. Youngstown needs fewer planners and more folks who can actually generate employment. Those Ohio winters are going to be a real problem for trying to bring such a place back to life, however.

    However, I see nothing wrong with the city demolishing old abandoned structures on land that is no longer in private ownership due to abandonment and unpaid taxes. And the city has no obligation to provide isolated residents with sewerage or water, as long as it no longer taxes residents for providing such services to others.

  5. So now, instead of trying to sell us swamp land the government wants us to build swamp land?

  6. Ohio is one of those places like Nebraska or North Dakota where maybe it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for large numbers of people to live here. Turn it into a nature preserve or something.

    Columbus is the one city that seems to have some success integrating into the modern economy.

  7. Columbus is the one city that seems to have some success integrating into the modern economy.

    Columbus is a hole, propped up by the fact that the government is housed there.

  8. Well yeah, but we’re talking relatively here. Have you ever driven around the place? It’s like a mini-Chicago. Cf Dayton, which seems to think it just has to hold on until GM and Delphi bounce back. I think they need to declare a few blocks downtown an indian reservation and build a casino.

  9. TP’s G-

    A few years ago, my family was trying to sell my grandmother’s home in Cleveland, and my father realized quite early on that the absolute best thing to do was to knock it down and sell the property – the house was built in 1908, after my grandmother’s death in 1990 it had rapidly fallen apart, the wiring was horrifyingly substandard (think 1/8″ copper wire with CLOTH insulation)and rapidly deteriorating structural safety. The city, however, was adamant that under no circumstances would they alow a demolition permit, and my father never did get an intelligent answer why. They would allow whoever bought it to completely rebuild the place and bring it up to code (and the best estimates on THAT were considerably more than what tearing it down and building a new single family residence would cost), but it would have to be the original home.
    A little research told us that this is not an unusual situation – most major cities are absolutely unwilling to allow a residential property owner to tear down their property unless it has gotten to the point where people walking past it are in imminent danger from the place falling over and sliding into the street. (This includes urban nightmares like Detroit and St Louis)As nearly as we were ever able to tell, the only real argument the city has is that in many cases, the city is still collecting taxes on the property, and that the number of houses – inhabited or abandoned – affects federal money coming to the city.

    Mike

  10. Kansas City, Missouri has been trying to spend itself into prosperity for years. The government there is in love with stadiums and the like. They even built a nice new one without a parking lot. Or a team to play there. Of course, their initiatives fail miserably.

    OTOH, Kansas City, Kansas has encountered some success by bringing in a NASCAR track and a large Cabellas (store that sells outdoor stuff). I suspect that KCK is the exception rather than the rule, though.

  11. As nearly as we were ever able to tell, the only real argument the city has is that in many cases, the city is still collecting taxes on the property, and that the number of houses – inhabited or abandoned – affects federal money coming to the city.

    Why do you think Nagin won’t allow dozers to clear New Orleans? Or why he won’t admit that they’ve got about 45% of their prior population?

  12. It once made a lot of sense for tons of people to live in Ohio – especially with all the manufacturing jobs there. Steel, rubber, oil, automotives, meat packing and many others were HUGE employers in Ohio. Random Fact: Ohio makes more cars (and manufactures more parts) than any other state by a long shot.

    But you can corrolate the declining health of Ohio’s biggest cities with the rise of unionization in them. Toledo, Youngstown, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Akron, Sandusky, and to a lesser extent Dayton have all experienced dramatic LOSSES in population since the fifties when the population of the US has doubled. All of these cities are unhealthy and yes, many of them are doing the Downtown stadium thing (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Dayton), but it can’t save them in the end, because there still aren’t that many jobs in them.

    Walk around downtown Toledo if you want to see a city that is dying and won’t admit it. The place is a ghost town with skyscrapers. It’s not pretty. It’s not fun to be a politician in these cities, I’m sure. I think its a move in the right direction to say – hey, we need to contract a bit.

  13. “…mayors tend to gravitate toward [grandiose] revitalization plans that involve building convention centers and sports arenas and subsidizing hotels and shopping malls.”

    Welcome to Indianapolis.

  14. Columbus is the one city that seems to have some success integrating into the modern economy.

    Akron has been doing quite nicely. I have a feeling this city is really going to boom once the Akron Biomedical Corridor starts up.

  15. Akron has been doing quite nicely. I have a feeling this city is really going to boom once the Akron Biomedical Corridor starts up.

    I hope so. Akron is a nice place. I grew up in Cuyahoga Falls, and I went back to visit a few years ago. If I were to end up there, I wouldn’t be too sad. It’s not likely to happen, but Akron’s not a bad place at all.

  16. smacky,

    The House of Blues was subsidized? I thought it seemed way too fancy when I saw some metal bands there a few months back. I mean, Mastodon should only play in disreputable holes like Peabody’s and the Grog Shop.

  17. Sir Disgrace,

    Yup. It was subsidized as part of the attempted Euclid Corridor restoration. The awful thing about it (apart from seeing metal bands at a venue that sells overpriced beer in plastic bottles) is that once they are done with Cleveland (which shouldn’t be long, considering most of the acts they book now are cover bands), they will pack up their stuff and go to a city with more people and more money (and they will still probably be booking the same uninteresting garbage acts)– and they will leave Cleveland stuck with the tab.

    And Peabody’s…don’t get me started on Peabody’s. True, they are a local establishment, but who really wants to see 10 local bands before seeing any one of the touring national acts on a given bill…they are laughably bad. I avoid going there whenever possible now. Other people feel the same. When the question of venue comes up and my friends are debating whether to see a show, whether it is at Peabody’s or House of Blues is an important consideration and often a deciding factor in skipping a given concert.

    Now the Beachland Ballroom is a great Cleveland Venue. So is the Grog Shop.

  18. Foxhunter and grylliade –

    Cleveland and Akron have recovered quite nicely in the last decade or so, and I love going back home to see them. Cleveland especially was able to resist the urge to tax their way back to prosperity – downtown is alive and vibrant, and the last time I saw Akron it was headed the same way. In Cleveland especially you have thriving residential areas close to or in Downtown (I’m especially thinking of Slavic Village, where I grew up)and when people live in those places the businesses that make life easier move in right behind them. Would that Toledo could say the same – downtown there looked like something out of ‘The Omega Man’, empty buildings that just got locked up 30 years ago (I’m thinking especially of the old Tiedke’s Department Store complex, which was a couple of full sized city blocks in the middle of town) and left there. Toledo tried the ‘silver bullet’ with SeaGate but without retail businesses offices and hotels can’t do squat to save a downtown. Cleveland figured that out with Tower City and the Galleria though you can make an argument that it was more luck than planning.

    Mike Kozlowski

  19. Last time I went to Peabody’s, they inflicted no local acts on me. I somehow suspect that you go to see different acts than me, though. Less violent ones.

    The Beachland is sweet. The Grog is my favorite venue on earth, but they tend to book too many pretentious indie rockers there for my taste. I’ll go see William Elliot Whitmore there in a few weeks, though.

    Don’t forget the Agora. That place r0x0r5 your 50x0r5.

  20. Sir Disgrace,

    I just wanted to add that the other awful thing about HOB is that they outbid national acts right out from under competing local clubs’ bids because they are able to offer more money (taxpayer subsidized, of course) to potential touring acts. Then, inevitably, the touring acts are disappointed when attendence at their HOB show is low, because of the high ticket prices that House of Blues is asking and that most Clevelanders simply won’t pay.

  21. The HOB has a mural about how Mad Anthony Wayne ate Indian babies and stuff. I am now outraged! outraged I say! that my tax dollars went to defame such a notable badass of history.

  22. Bhh,

    I was raised in Nebraska and then moved to Ohio, so I feel qualified to object to your lumping of the two. Large numbers of people do live in Ohio, at least when compared to Nebraska (11.5 vs. 1.7 million). For starters, Ohio has three metropolitan areas that approach the population of the whole state of Nebraska. Ohio has hardly any areas that would be considered rural in the sense that the word is used in Nebraska once you get more than an hour from the Missouri River. Also, Nebraska didn’t suffer from de-industrialization since it never had much non-farm industry.

    MH

  23. There are rural areas, but they’re way out in the west or in the southeast, in the Appalachian foothills.

    NE Ohio is a pretty big conurbation of balkanized madness, and there’s a damn lot of people in a pretty small area.

    Columbus is the only city except Akron that has fully come to terms with the modern post-industrial economy. Columbus has the advantage of never really having had an industrial past, though. Shitload of finance, insurance and research. It’s often been described as a mini Chicago.

    Akron has its issues, and The Don is both good and bad in a libertarian sense, but at least the city is making mostly SMART decisions about how to transition away from rubber.

    Cleveland (Canton, Massillon), sad to say, hasn’t come to terms with steel leaving. That politicians like Kucinich can continue to dupe people into thinking the $30/hr. union jobs are coming back simply amazes me. I like Cleveland, but it’s little more than a cool place to visit. Judging by the fact that almost twice as many people live in non-Cleveland Cuyahoga County than in Cleveland proper, I’d say lots agree.

    grylliade, when you grew up in the Falls, was it pre- or post-Rex’s Erection on State? I’m living there now, but thankfully down on the other side of Chapel Hill, so I’m shielded by a big hill and trees from that monstrosity.

  24. I will add that it’s a bit of a pain in the ass to live in the state’s only charter county. As if there weren’t enough local governments, there’s a county executive on top of it. Hooray.

  25. With a couple exceptions, the success or failure of an American city boils down almost entirely to two things: how well it accommodates the automobile, and how warm its winters are. Surviving in suburbia and in the desert are of course both entirely dependent on cheap oil. If that disappears, places that deliberately “shrink” are going to be just as fucked as the rest of suburban America. Bad idea.

    By the way, New York City was told to pursue “managed shrinkage” in the 70s, by the same sort of smartypants as this guy — shortly before beginning a dramatic increase to its current population, its highest ever.

  26. Serendipitously, Archinect has just published a photo tour of Midwestern cities in decline:

    http://tinyurl.com/3c8qk3

  27. I grew up in Cuyahoga Falls

    Still got a perm?

    You just got served.

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