Dusting off the 'Rust Belt'

August 9, 2004

Presidential candidates urged to solve Midwest metro woes

Inman News

Metropolitan policy experts from the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan Washington, D.C., think tank, said presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry have failed to address issues of sprawl and population stagnation in the "rust belt" states during campaigning in the region.

Bruce Katz, vice president and director of the institute's Metropolitan Policy Program, and Mark Muro, a senior policy analyst for the program, wrote an essay published in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper this week that states, "By failing to engage with the toughest questions about the rust belt's future, the candidates may be missing the chance to connect."

The rust belt is a term used to refer to a region in the Midwest and Northeast that was once a bustling center for steel and heavy industrial production but experienced major declines in manufacturing in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The authors state that metropolitan Flint, Mich., metro Cleveland, Ohio; and Erie, Pa., experienced stagnant growth or a decline in population from 1982-97, while the urbanized areas grew in size by 21 percent to 50 percent. "Sprawl has left grim dead zones at the center of dozens of the regions' metropolitan areas. Seven of the 10 largest cities in Pennsylvania and Ohio lost population during the last decade; 5 of the 10 in Michigan did. And that helps explain the loss of educated workers. Regions that possess vibrant downtowns and dense labor markets frequently attract and retain young, mobile, highly educated workers (think San Francisco); those that don't, won't," they stated.

College-educated adults are a rare breed in Ohio cities compared with the national average, the authors also said in the essay, and the state "saw a net loss of about 25,000 young college graduates between 1995 to 2000 as its 'weak attraction' of young graduates from elsewhere failed to offset the typical ebb and flow of residents."

"Rust belt leaders are recognizing that some of the nation's most extreme patterns of sprawl and abandonment are hollowing out the cities of these states, further eroding their attractiveness, and so their competitiveness," they wrote.

Polluted sites tie up otherwise prime urban in-fill development land in some rust belt metro areas – Detroit has about 630 brownfield sites encompassing 1,300 acres, while Cleveland has about 350 brownfield sites on 6,000 acres. "The complications of clean-up make a prohibitive legal and financial hindrance to rebuilding the swing states' cities—and their wider economy," Katz and Muro wrote in the essay.

Bush and Kerry "should link economic revival to practical initiatives on higher education, curbing sprawl and revitalizing the region's beleaguered cities, small towns and older suburbs. In that way they could tell a compelling story about how simultaneous progress on education and the quality-of-life will unleash a new era of growth. The candidates should do the Midwest a favor: Instead of patronizing it, they should work out a regional growth strategy that seeks to renew towns and cities as a way of again making them hubs of brainpower and prosperity," they wrote.

"Do that, and the presidential campaign will have worked out a politics of the rust belt equal to the tribulations and potential of America's economic heartland."

Copyright: Inman News Features

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