We were recently asked a provocative question: In light of the recession hitting parts of the Midwest particularly hard, is the Heartland dying?
Our answer? The recession has hit cities across America – and the world—and the Heartland is no exception. A high concentration of manufacturing jobs has made many Heartland cities particularly vulnerable. Yet the Heart of the Heartland is still beating; many cities are thriving, and even struggling cities have strengths to leverage as they move forward. The news tends to focus on the weak spots (e.g. Youngstown, OH, Detroit, MI ), bringing the nation’s attention to places that are (for the time being) suffering, and have been most affected by the recession. At NGC, in line with our philosophy of Appreciative Inquiry, we like to shine the light on strengths. And there are plenty of bright spots in the Heartland. Here are a few Hearts of the Heartland that are still beating strong, as well as a few cities that are struggling, but have potential to rebound.
Hearts of the Heartland
Case #1: Cedar Rapids, IA
Cedar Rapids was ranked #4 among “Mighty Micros” on our Next Cities list (the Might Micros includes 92 cities with populations between 100,000 and 200,000). Cedar Rapids has excelled in spite of the recession, with a relatively low unemployment rate of 5.4% (U.S. average is 9.1%, May 2009, Bureau of Labor Statistics) and positive recent job growth (the U.S. average as of April ’09 was -3.1%, and Cedar Rapids is +0.9%).
Outside of withstanding the recession, Cedar Rapids scores above average in Social Capital, Cost of Lifestyle, After Hours, and Earning, boasting very low crime rates, high voter participation, relatively low housing costs, plentiful bars and hangouts, and a high percentage of knowledge workers.
Case #2: Omaha, NE
Omaha was ranked #6 on the “Midsize Magnets” segment of the Next Cities list (Midsize Magnets include 49 cities with populations between 200,000 and 500,000). Like Cedar Rapids, Omaha has weathered the recession well, with a relatively low unemployment rate (4.6%), and positive recent job growth (+0.2%).
In addition, Omaha offers affordability (Cost of Lifestyle), active residents and plenty of parks (Vitality), and ample arts and cultural opportunities (After Hours), scoring above average in each of these indexes of a Next City.
Case #3: Columbus, OH
Columbus was ranked #10 on the “Super Cities” segment of the Next Cities list (Super Cities include 34 cities with populations of 500,000 or more). Although they are experiencing an unemployment rate of 8.3% and recent job growth of -3.0%, they are still faring better than many cities across the Midwest. What’s helping Columbus weather the economic storm? Their future job growth is better than average, along with their industrial diversity (i.e. breadth of employment opportunities) and percent of knowledge workers in the job market.
Columbus also scored above average in Learning, Social Capital, and Cost of Lifestyle. Columbus proves that learning isn’t all about universities: they have more libraries per capita and library visits per capita than many other cities, along with great student/teacher ratios and student expenditures at the K-12 levels. In Social Capital, Columbus boasts high voter participation, a high percentage of women-owned businesses, and more ethnic diversity than the average city. And, Columbus is affordable to boot.
But what about Heartland Cities that are Barely Beating?
Even cities that have been blasted in the media as “worst cities” or “most miserable cities” have their bright spots. While they aren’t thriving in the economic downturn, these Hearts of the Heartland are still beating. If they can leverage their strengths effectively, they may just turn things around.
Case #1: Dayton, OH
Dayton just missed the top 20 on the “Mighty Micros” list, ranking #22 (out of 92 cities). You might think Dayton is “dying” given the media’s negative twist (see this article from Forbes), yet we found that Dayton is thriving in many areas. Although their unemployment rate (11.2%) is higher than the U.S. average, Dayton has strengths to leverage to push them through the downturn.
In our Next Cities database, Dayton scores well above average in the Learning, Cost of Lifestyle, and Around Town indexes. In particular, Dayton was in the top tier in colleges per capita and library visits per capita (Learning), and has lower-than-average commute times (Around Town). Cost of Lifestyle is consistently ranked THE most important index by residents of all ages, and Dayton boasts a very low student cost of living, along with very reasonable housing and food costs.
Dayton struggles in the Earning index, in part because of the unemployment rate, but also due to a low percentage of knowledge workers and low average income. If Dayton can play up its strengths in Cost of Lifestyle, Around Town, and Learning, though, it has potential to recruit young people who are looking for an affordable community that’s easy to navigate, with great educational opportunities (e.g. University of Dayton, Wright State, and the award-winning Sinclair Community College, one of the largest community colleges in the country).
In our book, Dayton is still beating strong…
Case #2: St. Louis, MO
St. Louis came in at #19 out of 49 cities on the “Midsize Magnets” portion of our list. St. Louis’s unemployment rate (9%) is on par with the U.S. average – in fact, this article calls St. Louis “thoroughly average” in the current economic climate. In essence, St. Louis’s economy is struggling, but things could be much worse.
According to our list, St. Louis shines in the Around Town, Learning, and Cost of Lifestyle indexes, with high mass transit use, and fewer cars per household than average (this is a good thing in our book, because it indicates less reliance on cars as the sole means of transportation), as well as low pupil-teacher ratios at the K-12 level and plenty of colleges and libraries per capita. Low housing and utility costs make St. Louis an affordable place for young professionals to start out and settle down, too.
St. Louis struggles in the Earning index, mostly due to due to lower-than-average industrial diversity and incomes. But if you balance that with its low Cost of Lifestyle, St. Louis fares much better than “thoroughly average” by our standards.
Case #3: Chicago, IL
The Windy City has gotten some bad press lately, but we respectfully disagree: Chicago ranked a solid #13 out of 34 cities on the “Super Cities” segment of our Next Cities list. Although Chicago’s unemployment rate (10.5%) is slightly above the national average, it’s still a big draw for many young professionals looking for their “Next City” to launch their careers.
In spite of its unemployment rate, Chicago does reasonably well in the Earning index, with higher-than-average industrial diversity (i.e. breadth and depth of employment opportunities), as well as solid average incomes. Plus, Chicago’s Cost of Lifestyle is lower than many other “Super Cities.” Although housing isn’t cheap, it’s more affordable than in Super Cities like San Francisco or New York, and the student cost of living is low as well. In addition, Chicago offers excellent Around Town amenities, like walkability and mass transit options, plus access to major airports. Chicago’s diversity and inclusiveness (e.g. a high percentage of women- and minority-owned businesses), as well as great after-hours options are also a draw for young people.
This Windy City isn’t blowing away anytime soon, and has great potential to stay strong in spite of the recession.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
What is the call to action for Heartland cities that are struggling? The moral of the story is to leverage your strengths. It may not be feasible to invest in new transportation systems or more after-hours opportunities in the foreseeable future. Instead, highlight the assets in which your city shines. Our database of over 40,000 survey responses shows that Cost of Lifestyle is the most valued index by both young and seasoned professionals; it’s the foundation on which to build a city that will attract the next generation. For example, if your city can offer affordability, plus excellent learning opportunities, it will continue to draw young professionals in spite of the recession— if these assets are leveraged effectively.
The Heartland isn’t dead, nor is it dying. It’s not full of “miserable” and “thoroughly average” cities. Instead, it’s home to some of the brightest spots in the nation, and full of strengths and potential to weather the economic storm. Heartland cities offer young professionals what they value most, from affordability to learning opportunities to ease of getting around. These are also the amenities to retain them for the long haul as they settle down in their Next City.