Ohio’s cities, through success and struggle, innovation and stagnation, have captured the national imagination both as keepers of one state’s heritage and as emblems of the American experience. Dayton sprang into the nation’s consciousness at the turn of the 20th century as the home of two brothers whose innovations led America into the skies. Ninety years later, Bruce Springsteen won a Grammy for an album that featured the popular song “Youngstown,” a poignant elegy to the reign of big steel in a Rust Belt city.1
A plan for Ohio’s future prosperity must recognize and address both the hardships and potential of its cities, which have long been familiar characters in America’s social and economic history.
Ohio’s cities and the regions that surround them are buffeted by the same challenges that are affecting so many other communities in America’s heartland states. Rapidly expanding competition abroad is altering the state economy. Demographic trends at home leave businesses with growing workforce challenges. And global climate change and environmental imperatives—along with rising gas prices—are making the typical development patterns in Ohio’s metropolitan areas unsustainable.
In sum, Ohio’s cities exemplify the state’s struggles in a changing economy. It was Ohio’s cities—from those that grew up along key water and land trading and transportation routes to those that developed nationally important industries based on their proximity to coal, ore, and lumber—that brought the state to prominence, in addition to its thriving agricultural industry that led to its reputation as part of the nation’s “bread basket.” Now that these cities are reeling from economic changes that permeate all industries, their hardships and obstacles as well as past policy responses threaten Ohio’s ability to prosper.
In order for the state and its cities to realize their potential in a fiercely competitive global economy they must maximize the potential of the assets that drive prosperity, in particular innovation, human capital, infrastructure, and quality of place. As illustrated by Brookings’ November 2007 “Blueprint for American Prosperity,” these assets principally concentrate in the nation’s metropolitan areas—networks of urban, suburban, and rural places that are inextricably linked by social and economic ties. When extended to the state of Ohio, such analysis reveals that the state’s sixteen metropolitan regions account for about 81 percent of the state population, 84 percent of jobs, and 87 percent of output.2 Ohio is a metropolitan state in a metropolitan nation, and its cities are building blocks of these larger regions. The state of Ohio must embrace this reality and implement an economic development strategy that functions at the regional level. This will afford Ohio and its cities their best chance at success in today’s economy.
While Ohio is home to about 250 cities, a small number exemplify the state’s legacy—in essence, its “core.” Ohio’s “core communities”—defined for the purposes of this report as those cities which had at least 15,000 residents in 1950 and whose county population
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share was at least 20 percent at the time—have historically served as the state’s population centers and as the heart of economic and cultural activity across the state. In 1950, nearly half of all Ohioans (47 percent) lived within the boundaries of the 32 cities identified as cores; many of these cities are also county seats.
From Akron to Zanesville, these core communities vary in size, demographic composition, industry, regional character, and economic resilience. Yet they are joined by the common role that they have historically played as critical nodes of broader regional and economic networks. While some of these places have lost prominence over time, many still anchor their surrounding metropolitan (and smaller but similarly defined micropolitan) regions.
The cores retain a host of assets that are legacies of their past—and any evaluation of how Ohio and its cities can move into the future must begin with a critical assessment that clarifies core communities’ roles as nodes within their larger regions. This process involves asking hard questions about the strengths and weaknesses of Ohio’s cities and requires frank answers for the process to be of benefit. But assessment can yield a wealth of knowledge and data that should allow state, regional, and city leaders to make focused investments where the assets that drive prosperity exist and in doing so maximize returns for Ohioans.
Determining the location of assets clarifies the focal points that ground metropolitan networks. In turn, the state can learn to recognize the backbone of its economy and understand what it will take for each city to tap into—and contribute to—Ohio’s great strengths.
The report that follows provides a framework for thinking about how Ohio’s cities can relate to one another and leverage their assets, as well as realize the potential gains of regional cooperation. This framework, as well as preliminary findings regarding the location of assets across Ohio’s core communities, is grounded in data analysis that was intended to serve as the first step in the process of “taking stock.” As the culmination of the initial stage of the Restoring Prosperity to Ohio initiative, led by the Brookings Institution and Greater Ohio, this report also offers an assessment of the policy environment that the current state administration has inherited, as well as a preliminary set of recommendations for statewide action.
Our analysis indicates that state policies have failed to keep pace with the changing dynamics of today’s social, environmental, and economic reality. State policies set “rules of the development game” too often favoring the creation of new communities over the redevelopment of older ones or subsidizing greenfield development instead of brownfield remediation. Such policies undermine the health and vitality of cities, as well as their surrounding metropolitan areas. State policies also lack a broader, accountable vision and often work at cross purposes with each other. In fact, state policy provides incentives for needless and unproductive competition between cities and their surrounding jurisdictions, though today’s economy rewards places that collaborate to compete.
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The result is that Ohio’s cities are weaker than they should be, and misplaced state investments fail to empower cities to leverage their assets. This disconnect impedes the development of the state at a time when Ohio most needs to realize its full potential in a global economy.
Ohio needs a “competitive communities” strategy that strives to leverage the potential of cities that are “still in the game,” and helps other once vibrant communities manage their decline in a deliberate and smart fashion. Different places should build on their distinct assets and realities and use state policies to catalyze markets, expand consumer choices, generate wealth, and, in some cases, down-size rationally.
The “competitive communities” strategy will enable bold experimentation on governance reform—within cities and between cities and their surrounding metropolitan areas—and hold cities and state government to a higher level of accountability and performance. We would argue that revitalization of many of these core places is the springboard to a more prosperous and competitive state as a whole. And this strategy would encourage both core communities and their surrounding metros and micros to focus on the key assets that drive prosperity in today’s economy: innovation, human capital, infrastructure, and quality places.
The state’s taxpayers deserve the most bang for their buck, and this strategy can deliver.
This report contains a series of preliminary policy recommendations that build off of economic reality and are intended to help Ohio respond to global forces and develop a new mental map of its economy that focuses on the places where its assets concentrate. In response to significant interest within core communities, a new administration, and key constituencies from across the state of Ohio, Brookings and Greater Ohio developed these “diagnostic” recommendations in partnership with state officials and corporate, civic, and academic leaders. After an initial framing of the “competitive communities” strategy, the recommendations are grouped according to the key assets that drive prosperity, with the addition of overarching recommendations concerning the need for better and more holistic regional governance.
Finally, this paper will argue that to chart a course for prosperity, Ohio will require an accountable, strategic, and dependable partner at the federal level.
What follows is explicitly intended to serve as a working document for the purposes of the Restoring Prosperity to Ohio summit. It is meant to catalyze discussion and elicit feedback from the unique assembly of state, local, and regional leadership represented at this convening. Our priorities for the next stage of the project include a more rigorous assessment of urban education priorities for Ohio and an evaluation of next steps for state cluster development policy in light of the Ohio Department of Development’s (ODOD) recent findings and recommendations. The feedback collected in response to the proceedings of September 10 will inform this agenda as we move forward.
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