Lessons for cities in these hard times: get it together

A conference with experts from numerous American cities draws inspiration from Seattle's approach to regional economics, and provides fair warning to this fractured region as well.

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A conference with experts from numerous American cities draws inspiration from Seattle's approach to regional economics, and provides fair warning to this fractured region as well.

Rockefeller’s estate in Sleepy Hollow, New York was the perfect place to have a three-day discussion, a few days before Halloween, on the current situation in America’s metropolitan areas. Congress is bewitched, the public is spooked, and public budgets are being beheaded. Eek!

The opportunity to stay in Kykuit, Rockefeller’s mansion and now an historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was a great personal experience and reminded me that wealth was widely distributed throughout American history. The estate was once 3,000 acres but is now only 300 acres, the remainder a state park or still in the family.

Across a majestic view of the Hudson River and its valley is a unique geologic feature, the Palisades, a nearly 20-mile line of steep cliffs along the west side of the river.  To prevent development on the top of the Palisades, the family purchased 18 miles of the bluff and gave it to the state for a linear state park. Small public tours are given of the Rockefeller estate and its gardens. The old coach house is now the conference center.  I admit that while walking back from the coach house to the home late at night, I did keep listening for the sound of horses’ hooves. Washington Irving is buried nearby, and his spooky stories were much on my mind.

The biography Titan describes Rockefeller’s rise from an accountant for a kerosene company to one of American wealthiest men. His use of monoply power to drive competitors out of business by using profits from one region to subsidize a loss in another region led to America’s antitrust laws.

It also led to a discussion of an article in the New York Times the morning of the conference. The Chinese have purchased the best technology from around the world to build a desalination plant in Tianjin. The plant is operating at a loss. When questioned, a representative of the plant said that the loss was acceptable since it was a state-owned company. The purpose he noted was to learn the technology so that China could manufacture the plants in this industry of the future. Of course if a state-owned company sells the plants at a subsidized cost, the competitors go out of business. A WTO action would take years and even if a tariff was awarded, there would be no one left to protect (read solar panels). Titan must have been required reading in Chinese business schools. 

The meeting was hosted by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and organized by Neal Peirce, a national journalist whose syndicated column is carried by the Seattle Times. The 25 participants included the former mayors of Detroit and Indianapolis, the director of the Atlanta Chamber, staff from the Chamber executives association, senior academics, journalists, and representatives from The Ford Foundation, National League of Cities, and federal agencies. It led to a great discussion and recommendations on metropolitan America.

The focus of the discussion after three years of recession and slow growth turned from urban sprawl to economics and competitiveness. The story on China was a segue into a new global economy. The changed circumstances for the United States over the past 30 years, as technology and global competition have accelerated, have cities and metro areas all over the country searching for new strategies and partnerships to assist their economies. A significant topic was discussing education, such as the degree that our schools are not preparing our youth with the basic skills to participate in the job market. The need for skilled workers also led to a discussion of our dysfunctional immigration policy: The attraction of the best and the brightest to America has been a foundation of our success; now we send them home to compete against us.

While the geographic foundation of an area’s ability to compete was recognized as the metro area, the messiness and fragmentation of our government system was central to the discussion. The general consensus was that structural reform was difficult and the areas of the country that would be more successful were those that developed the least messy systems. Small steps were important. The creation of Sound Transit, The Prosperity Partnership, and the Trade Development Alliance were examples of coordinating steps in our region that I gave as local examples.

There was significant concern about the environment and how to include its importance with a public that is greatly concerned about jobs. The Atlanta Chamber president spoke about the winners and losers in the competition. The metros that will be winners in a technology economy will be those that attract and retain talent; a metro with dirty air and water and an image of smokestacks will be a loser. A clean environment is critical to future economic success.

What about the role of state governments in creating competitive metros? Cities, counties, and metros are created by state government. Few states with the exception of Oregon and Minnesota have created strong metro organizations. The feeling was, with state governments distracted by their budget issues, locals need to weave together their own solutions. There was a recognition that business leadership was essential to pushing the local governments in the metro areas to work together and collaborate. In Seattle, the Trade Alliance partnership was created by leadership from the business community.

But how to raise the local game? How to get metro areas into the world series of job competition? Some steps: First, each area should develop an honestly frank business plan or economic strategy. That plan should recognize the economic crisis but be aspirational. That plan should include a strong focus on how to employ the less educated in the metro, creating a fair and productive economy. Second, states should give incentives for metro collaboration.Third, foundations like Ford and agencies like HUD should pass around information on successful models.

As much as we sit around and complain about conditions here, our region seems to be a national model, notably the development of a metro economic strategy five years ago, the creation of the Trade Alliance 20 years ago, and numerous international study missions that impacted collaboration, leadership development, and the recognition of our global economic circumstances. The National League of Cities published a guide for cities a week before the conference. It is based on a March meeting in Seattle and is titled “Strategies for Globally Competitive Cities.” Again our region is featured.

A book 10 years ago depicted our country as a common market of metro economies. Together they are the national economy. It is clear that some metros will be winners and some will be losers. We have been doing well in this competition, so far. But our local business, government, and education leaders need to work quickly, outrunning the sound of approaching hoof beats. We should be scared.


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