Saturday, May 30, 2009

What Iceland Can Teach Greater Youngstown

The population of shrinking city people in exile is impressive. Of course, not everyone wants to move back. But even the expatriates who are happy where they are still feel the gravity of home. A trend I'm tracking is the boomerang migration back to places where the economy is ailing:

It’s been so tough for everyone in Iceland. People can’t pay their mortgage, the price of food is skyrocketing, people struggle to cover bills, the threat of unemployment and brain drain loom above everyone.

Iceland isn’t in good shape so why on earth would I want to move back? I live in a great city, in a sweet flat, I have a thriving social life and a good job. Why I hear you ask? Why?

I can relate. I get asked all the time why someone from Erie, PA living in Colorado would spend a lot of time promoting Pittsburgh. And Pittsburghers get a strange look when I tell them how great Youngstown is. I spent part of my Memorial Day weekend with a Pittsburgh expat whose ex-wife is from Youngstown. Ah, so he must understand the splendor of Mill Creek Park. He didn't know anything about it. When I told him about my project, he gave me that typical Pittsburgher look ... Why?

As you are likely aware, Youngstown is in the national press once again. The review is mixed, but I want to stress the passage that most resonates with me:

But without manufacturing, the city was forced to redefine itself, says Hunter Morrison, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at Youngstown State University. Successfully reorienting a dying city requires identifying what strengths the city has left and building out from there, he says.

“It’s the big bang theory: Just the way the universe expands it also contracts, and when you contract you go back to the core,” says Mr. Morrison, an early architect of the 2010 plan. For cities in flux, the core becomes any kind of business that can’t go anywhere – the permanent economic engines, Morrison says. With the steel mills gone, what’s left in Youngstown is a university and a couple of hospitals – “eds and meds,” city planners say.

“We’re going from a mill town to a college town,” Morrison says. Youngstown State is far from an economic and research powerhouse, but, he says, it’s the city’s best hope for a future, and it’s here to stay.

“The university has 14,000 immigrants to the knowledge economy every year,” he says. “If we link and leverage our resources, more will stay here.”

Virginia Tech’s Professor Schilling agrees: “There are a lot of engaged young folks who like to live at the scale of Youngstown.”

Downtown is emerging as the city’s new heart after years of decline and neglect. Restaurants have opened on the main street, and a public-private venture to nurture locally founded technology companies has opened. There are even plans to do something few thought possible: build new, market-rate housing between the university and the downtown’s main drag, in the hope that some people actually want to live here.

It's important that all Youngstown boosters understand this geographic pattern. Economic globalization demands a vibrant core, a bustling downtown. Often, this is at the expense of the rest of the region. But this kind of investment is how both Chicago and Pittsburgh turned their fortunes around. At the center of the core renaissance is the Youngstown Business Incubator. Tomorrow's economy is taking shape in Youngstown.

If you are feeling the pull of home, then know that there is an established avenue for you to apply your talents. Iceland needs its diaspora now more then ever. The same is true for Youngstown.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Boomerang Migration Motivation

Why does talent return home? The answer isn't money:

A recent survey of 1,203 scientists and technologists who moved back to India and China from the West found the main motivation was not, as might be expected, higher salaries. Instead, family ties and the demand for their skills was the attraction. ...

... Anu Acharyan, the founder and CEO of the genomics services specialist Ocimium Biosolutions, said demand is the key factor. “Brains go from areas of lower opportunity to areas of higher opportunity.”

The family angle won't surprise anyone. That's a big driver of migration, if you can afford to do so. Chasing a job far from home is fine until you have kids. You can't simply drop them off at your sister's house and then go out on a date with your spouse. And long-distance holidays quickly become a chore. The list of reasons to live closer to kin is rather long.

"Areas of higher opportunity" is a vague attraction. What does it mean, exactly? I would describe it as trading the life of being a small fish in a big pond for that of a big fish in a small pond. Your impact increases tremendously and you can do things never possible in an alpha global city such as New York. In a nutshell, India and Youngstown have much in common:

[Acharyan] founded Ocimium in the US, registering the company in Delaware, before moving back to India in 2000. At that time there was no genomics expertise in India and the company brought in skills from the US, UK and Japan.

Acharyan said there are opportunities and challenges faced by those contemplating a move back to India. In particular, it was a leap to come to work for a small start-up that was then the only genomics company in the country. “Most people are convinced in the end through family concerns, though the decision is easier if the compensation is right,” said Acharyan.

I'll add that the political situation in India is far from conducive to starting a business. Entrepreneurship in the Steel Valley is relatively easy by comparison. America's urban frontier is truly an area of higher opportunity for boomerang migrants motivated to return home.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Geographic Arbitrage

Today's post is brought to you by George Nemeth and the Brewed Fresh Daily crew. Yesterday, I dropped a term, "geographic arbitrage". The reference comes from a story about entrepreneurial activity in Bend, Oregon. Bend can compete with Silicon Valley for talent because of a lower cost of living. There are other considerations and Ohio is trying to leverage them to its benefit:

A number of cities, such as Kalamazoo, Mich., and Toledo, Ohio, are offering grant money and tax breaks to high-tech start-ups, just as the usual venture-capital hot spots, such as Silicon Valley and Boston, continue to see a pullback in venture lending. Many of the nontraditional cities require that start-ups receiving grants invest in their area, leaving companies little choice but to locate -- or relocate -- their businesses.

Firms also are being lured by the lower cost of doing business in such cities. And, as the number of high-tech start-ups increases in these areas, existing companies find that as they grow, they no longer have to leave Ohio, Michigan and other states that traditionally have had less to offer in the way of high-tech communities and investors.

We are seeing glimpses of the re-ordering of the startup landscape and it bodes well for Rust Belt cities such as Youngstown. Venture capital is becoming less "spiky" as the Flat World paradigm gains traction. This is great news for utopian cities such as Bend. And it could be a boon for the movers and shakers who dream of returning to their home in the Tech Belt.

Tempering enthusiasm is the Silicon Valley advantage. The Spiky World paradigm helps us understand why innovation tends to thrive in expensive places to business. In particular, the concentration of services is a big attraction:

The least-developed part of Pittsburgh's Entrepreneurship Commons is the professional services infrastructure, especially the lawyers. There are plenty of lawyers in Pittsburgh who spend all of their time representing entrepreneurs. There are relatively few lawyers in Pittsburgh who spend much time building an legal infrastructure for entrepreneurship. (At our law school, we're working on programs to help fill that need. Watch for more - next Fall.)

What I do I mean by that? I'll elaborate in a later post. But here's a taste. Question: In the Silicon Valley, if you're a grad student who would rather start a tech company than finish a Ph.D., who do you call? Answer: Your next-door neighbor will know -- and he or she will tell you to call one of a relatively small number of very well-known business lawyers. The Valley has a sophisticated and deep entrepreneurial infrastructure, and the lawyers play major roles in shaping it. Question: In Pittsburgh, if you're a grad student who would rather start a tech company than finish a Ph.D., who do you call?

The still missing piece in Ohio and other Rust Belt states is the entrepreneurial infrastructure. But as Mike Madison suggests, we could build it. Once we do, then the geographic arbitrage play becomes much more viable.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

When Natives Come Home

Why do people return home, particularly after leaving in search of economic opportunity? The answer varies, but typically boils down to passion for place. Consider the boomerang migration of Shane Thompson:

Shane Thompson, 39, moved back to the Ohio Valley in 2005 with wife Amber from Washington, D.C.

A native of Loomis, which is a small town near Barkcamp State Park, Thompson and his wife now live in St. Clairsville and have a new baby, 8-month-old Alex.

They enjoyed living in Georgetown, but it was a pricey neighborhood, he said. And though the local culture is different compared to Washington, Thompson's quality of life is better because he has more expendable income.

For example, he takes some business trips, but his main office is his home. He uses the Internet and conference calls while working as vice president of business development and strategies for, a company that owns Toxco battery recycling plants in Lancaster, Ohio, and Baltimore, Ohio.

"I bought a home here for less than what I was paying for rent in Georgetown," he noted.

Re-adjusting to smaller-town life was a little tough for Thompson, as the selection of restaurants, culture and the arts is less varied than in Washington, he said.

"It's been stagnant here for such a period of time. ... People don't realize how vibrant other places are. We had a long run when we were blessed with manufacturing," he said.

Thompson, who ran unsuccessfully for a state representative seat in 2006, said his company is looking to possibly open a new lithium battery plant in Lancaster if federal stimulus money comes through.

"Batteries are the new mining," Thompson said, noting batteries contain a variety of metals.

He hopes his company can create more new jobs in the state of Ohio.

"I hope I can help in some small way," he said.

Thompson is the prototypical pioneer of Rust Belt revitalization. Telecommuting allows him to take advantage of geographic arbitrage opportunities. Youngstown has similar migration tales and value propositions. But the most important motivation is the sense of home and what it might mean for raising your own family.

Eventually, outsiders will appreciate what shrinking cities have to offer. Until then, it is up to folks such as Jessica Trybus to lead the way:

The 28-year-old Trybus embodies the Pittsburgh "boomeranger" the region is hoping to lure back.

After growing up in North Park, Ms. Trybys left for college at Cornell in the late 1990s and after graduation, moved to the West Coast to satisfy her life-long acting bug.

But Ms. Trybus soon discovered she loved the business side of the entertainment industry, and after jobs at Drew Barrymore's production company Flower Films and at Alta Vista, she and her now-husband, fellow entrepreneur and Pittsburgh-native Anthony Lacenere, returned in 2002 in search of a "better quality of life."

Ms. Trybus, who earned a Masters of Entertainment Technology at CMU in 2004, doesn't fit the bill of your typical "gamer" who designs or plays video games, said ETC director Don Marinelli. Most, he said, are "testosterone-enriched males," whereas Trybus is "wholesome and polite," though she does "bleed black and gold.''

Ms. Trybus is determined to help Pittsburgh stake a claim the booming interactive video gaming industry by focusing on "edutainment," which Mr. Marinelli describes as using animation and video gaming technology for education and training purposes. As CMU's "edutainment director," she lobbied the state's Department of Community and Economic Development around initiatives to help the university spin off companies in the field.

With her staff of 10 at Downtown-based Etcetera, Ms. Trybus creates interactive animated training and simulation programs for local employers such as UPMC.

Her hands are full juggling promoting Pittsburgh as the mecca for education-focused gaming while simultaneously trying to expand Etcetera's customer base. But Ms. Trybus said it's her calling to be a "catalyst," not just for her firm's benefit, but for Pittsburgh's.

"I'm motivated by all the great things this region has to offer," she said. "We see a ton of potential."

Part of that region is Youngstown and the Steel Valley. If you see the same potential, then please get in touch and we'll help you move back.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Youngstown Venture Capital Investment

When pondering the best way forward, I think checking out another city in a similar position is useful. Grand Rapids, Michigan is bigger than Youngstown, Ohio. But consider the apples-to-apples comparisons concerning venture capital investment:

"A lot of venture capital funds are coming to Michigan," said Jody Vanderwel, president of Grand Angels, a venture capital intermediary. Investors "know there's some great ideas coming out of the universities that are just waiting to be commercialized."

Vanderwel's argument is backed up by data comparing Grand Rapids' venture capital investment to other Michigan cities in the past 10 years. While Kalamazoo ($41 million) and Detroit ($76 million) don't have substantially higher amounts of venture capital investment, Ann Arbor's $558 million is an eye-opener.

Mike DeVries, managing director of Ann-Arbor based EDF Venture's Grand Rapids office, said the report underestimates the venture capital in West Michigan because many private investments are not divulged.

But he adds Grand Rapids' culture is not conducive to large-scale, high-risk venture capital investments compared with Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan produces many entrepreneurs in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields.

Grand Rapids, relative to other communities in Michigan and "comparable markets" outside of the state, is struggling to spark a vibrant startup economy:

Columbus, Ohio catches my eye. Similar major research university cities Madison and Ann Arbor tower above Columbus in terms of venture capital investment. The graph suggests to me a problem with Ohio. I can't see why Columbus can't rank with the likes of Ann Arbor or Madison. Cities with major research universities near the core should attract substantial venture capital. What's wrong with Columbus?

If the problem has something to do with the political economy of the State of Ohio, then Youngstown is in a strong position. Youngstown can effectively leverage three political geographies: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Also, it sits almost exactly halfway between regional urban powers Cleveland and Pittsburgh. And for that matter, Columbus is close enough to also be in the picture. Furthermore, Youngstown State University is a close neighbor of the central business district. That's not quite the University of Michigan in the middle of Ann Arbor, but Grand Rapids is optimistic that it can benefit greatly from a similarly-positioned Grand Valley State University. Perhaps now you can understand why I think the Youngstown value proposition is so strong.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Diaspora Economics: Returning Home

The graphs above sketch Korean brain drain currently attempting to return home. I have the impression that many people are skeptical that Greater Youngstown expatriates would consider moving back. Albeit anecdotal, there is evidence to the contrary.

Some members of the Greater Youngstown Diaspora refuse to slog through another Northeast Ohio winter. We can't do anything about the climate drawbacks. But we can do plenty for the folks aching to wake up each morning in the Steel Valley and indulge in the wonderful cultural assets only home can provide.

The missing piece for the boomerang inclined is economic opportunity. Enter the Defend Youngstown cartel:

It's through this underground network of e-mails and blogs that Kidd began speaking with Jim Cossler, director of the Youngstown Business Incubator. Kidd calls Cossler one of the "heroes of the city," along with boxer Kelly Pavlik, Mayor Williams and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.

"One of the problems with Youngstown is that it never engaged 20-somethings. I think that Phil and the others are doing a phenomenal job at doing something. We have a diaspora of 20-somethings that have left Youngstown," Cossler said.

He and Kidd exchanged e-mails for a few months and he's kept up with Kidd's blog. Now he reads several local blogs, including Kidd's "The Frontline" and John Slanina's "I Will Shout Youngstown."

"These blogs like Phil's are absolutely critical," Cossler said. "We have to engage the talents that are here now."

Cossler said in his experience, the Internet has been the best way to keep connected with the younger generation of Youngstown that has left. Many of those people he talks to left to find work, he said, but are frequently asking about employment in the city.

"They are staying in touch with their hometown online," Cossler said. "These blogs are a great way for people to do that."

Slanina, known as Janko to his readers, met Kidd through his blog.

"Defend Youngstown fills an important niche in monitoring the progress of our region. It summarizes news, promotes various opinions and spreads information about Youngstown to readers throughout the world," Slanina said.

Slanina said reactions to his blog have been very positive.

"What I have discovered is that there is a very unique and engaged public out there who care deeply about this region, but they are often separated by distance."

While Kidd listed Slanina and Ryan as sources of inspiration for what he's doing, Ryan said he's inspired by Kidd and Slanina.

Ryan said of Kidd, "It's guys like him who inspire me."

"What these guys are doing is great. You have these young people like Phil, Jay Williams, myself, Commissioner John McNally, [state Sen.] Boccieri, who come together for what's best for the community," Ryan said. "You have 2010, the Business Incubator, the air base. There's a lot of really positive things happening in the area."

Ryan said he thought the blogs and Web sites supporting Youngstown were an optimistic sign.

"We're finally at a point where we're not letting other people define us. We're defining ourselves," Ryan said. "We're finally at a point where we're not accepting the definition of outsiders. It's a big shift. I think that we've been on the abuse side of that long enough."

The emphasis (passage in bold) is my own doing. Above are the usual suspects for Youngstown's revitalization. Cossler's experience is no different than the story about Koreans studying abroad. Expatriates are looking for opportunities close to home.

If you don't mind a little advice, then I'll tell you that Youngstown is all about making your own opportunity. This isn't just a dream, a vision of the future. This is right now.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Rust Belt Road Trip Stops in Youngstown

If you haven't heard of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), then you should introduce yourself to this group and its efforts. GLUE facilitates collaboration among Rust Belt cities. Something many people have noted is that one region has little to no idea what is going on in neighboring urban areas often dealing with the same problems of economic redevelopment. A good example of the kind of eye-opening projects GLUE supports is the Rust Belt Road Trip:

For the difficulties of the implementation, there are still clear successes from the vision: things like Youngstown Business Incubator, the Rust Belt Brewing Company start-up, and a changing image are enormous progress for the city. As MVOC and Defend Youngstown’s Phill Kidd puts it, “If you’re looking for traditional job opportunities, Youngstown might not be it. But if you’re young, you have an idea, and you want to make job opportunities, this is the place to be—no one can stop you here.”

I think most people not from Youngstown would be surprised what the city has to offer. I'd also guess that most expatriates don't sense the energy and possibility now coursing through downtown as a result of the vision of people such as Phil Kidd.

Thanks to Rust Wire (a must-read on a daily basis), I notice that there is another "Rust Belt Road Trip". A blogger picked up on the journey and posted some thoughts that capture the spirit of GLUE:

What else can we learn from the Rust Belt that we can also learn from this most recent recession? That planning for the status quo, in this case, constant growth- isn’t always the smartest solution. Planners and city administrators must consider worst case scenarios also. For example, a community organization seeking to make use of vacant land in Buffalo was unable to secure permits for urban farming because the city’s master plan did alot room for that sort of development. Detroit is offering up vacant lots to entrepreneurs who want to use vacant lots for growing nearly anything. Other cities like Youngstown, Ohio are planning to reduce city size by intentionally shrinking amenities and housing stock to adjust to the new realities. ...

... Cities like Detroit and Youngstown have legacies that smaller cities could never have provided without their former glory. In fact, many of these cities with manufacturing legacies now have a brighter healthier future for the children in these declining places- one noted positive aspect of decline is the noted increase in environmental quality.

In other words, cities such as Youngstown are leading the way for a better urban future.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Social Media and Brain Drain

My bit of blogging expertise is brain drain. Why do the talented leave home and what do they do once they leave? The Emigrant Advice Network (Éan) is a service for those who leave Ireland. Providing assistance for those who go elsewhere for economic opportunity might sound crazy. But it is actually a brilliant strategy.

Migrants just don't pick up and go anywhere. They tend to follow established pathways. Typically, the brain drain leads to a small group of places and expatriates pool together. With advances in communication technologies, the call abroad is much stronger and more efficient (hat tip Éan):

As I travel round Ireland, I will be told that the boom has changed the country forever and, what with modern air travel, the exodus this time will be temporary. Yet technology, in the form of Facebook and Skype, is a powerful new agent in the emptying of villages. "Those who go are in contact with the lads back home," Michael says. "They are telling us what a good time they are having, asking, 'What's keeping you?'." The network that has always been so important in Ireland - ties of kinship and geography - now sucks the young away.

Another exodus of young adults is underway in Ireland. While it is true that social media websites make out-migrating easier, these tools also smooth the way for return and help expatriates keep track of what is going on at home. Big things are brewing in Greater Youngstown. What's keeping you?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Steel Valley Regional News

The first open forum for the Greater Pittsburgh Regional Visioning Project is on Wednesday, May 20th at the Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side. (More information) I post this here because four of the five Steel Valley counties (Trumbull is left out) are included in this region. Youngstown, Morgantown, and Pittsburgh are all aboard the same economic boat.

A good example of why this matters to you concerns the geography of federal stimulus money. The PA side of the Steel Valley has been more "shovel ready" than the OH side. While that might seem to be bad news for Youngstown, it most certainly is not for the Steel Valley:

Rep. Jason Altmire has requested $19.2 million for improvements to the Freedom Road/Route 228 corridor stretching across Beaver and Butler counties, and $6 million to complete planning and design for commuter rail service from the Allegheny Valley to Downtown Pittsburgh. ...

... Mr. Altmire has said that improvements in the Freedom Road/Route 228 corridor and commuter rail from Arnold to Pittsburgh were his top transportation priorities.

He has asked for $12.7 million to upgrade the Crows Run corridor of Freedom Road from Route 65 to Route 989; $4 million for improvements to Route 228 at Interstate 79; and $2.5 million for Route 228 improvements from the Mars railroad bridge to the Mars-Valencia Road intersection.

"That is key to the ability to make that corridor work," he said. The Crows Run work "has been talked about for decades."

Here is a map of Mr. Altmire's district:

You can see that part of the Steel Valley lies within Mr. Altmire's jurisdiction. You should also know that Altmire is good friends with Congressman Tim Ryan, and both of them make up the duo behind the Tech Belt initiative. I like to think of Altmire as another representative of Youngstown economic interests.

Lastly, I want to bring your attention to the Project 360° campaign, which I read about in The Business Journal. You can read all about it here if you don't have a subscription. The Vindy published an article about the campaign back in October:

The campaign’s goal is to assist projects that create 1,600 new jobs and $1.3 billion in investment this year. The chamber runs the economic development programs for Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

That's a big deal not just for Mahoning and Trumbull counties, but the entire Greater Pittsburgh Region.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Podcasts for a Greater Youngstown

If you haven't seen the self-deprecating videos about Cleveland, go here. The round table at The Sound of Ideas discussing the impact is a must-listen. Samantha Fryberger of Positively Cleveland remarks that the greatest civic boosters for the city are the people who move back. This demographic is instrumental to the economic redevelopment of any Rust Belt city.

Second story concerns the revitalization of Ord, Nebraska. Where? Believe it or not, I've been tracking the reinvention of Ord since 2006. A recent update via Marketplace seems to have the small town on track to better days:

It could take a while before people like Kovarek move to Ord en masse. Will Lambe has studied small-town innovation at the University of North Carolina. He says the time it takes can vary widely.

Will Lambe: To me, it depends on what the asset that the community is trying to leverage for economic development is, and how easy is it to turn that asset into some real value.

Lambe says it took several decades for Branson, Mo. to turn itself into a country music mecca. But it took just a couple years for the town of Scotland Neck, in North Carolina, to re-imagine itself as an outdoor recreation destination.

I think the lesson is that the re-imagining of Youngstown can't begin fast enough.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Sharing the Treasures of the Mahoning Valley

Press release from the Mahoning Cultural Collaborative:

Geocaching: MCC in the MV

Geocaching, a modern treasure seeking game played utilizing GPS systems, is practiced all around the globe. The main objective of this game is to look for geocaches, or hidden containers, and to reveal your hunting encounters online. People of all ages with an awareness of both the community and the environment will take pleasure in this modern day treasure hunt. You can visit the geocache website at and look for MCC in the MV to begin your virtual quest. For more information call 330-941-1400.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cleveburgh Labor Market

Yesterday, I WILL SHOUT YOUNGSTOWN commented "on how intertwined the Youngstown and Pittsburgh labor markets are." The labor market is bigger than Youngstown-Pittsburgh. We might include Erie, but there is no doubt that Cleveland-Akron is part of the workshed:

First Commonwealth Financial Corp. hired I. Robert Emmerich as executive vice president and chief credit officer for First Commonwealth Bank on Tuesday to oversee all aspects of bank credit.

He most recently held a similar job with National City Corp., where he worked 31 years.

Emmerich lists his location as Cleveland/Akron. Of course, Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank recently acquired Cleveland-based National City. And I first became aware of First Commonwealth when I read a story about the bank poaching financial talent in Charlotte, NC (specifically targeting natives of Southwestern PA who might consider returning). Naturally, First Commonwealth started mining Cleveland to fill open positions when National City started laying off.

I write "naturally" because there is a lot of worker churn between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Migration data bear that out. (more on those patterns in a later post) A company in Pittsburgh can more easily find labor in Cleveland than entice expatriates to boomerang. I make this remark as a practical approach to moving back to Greater Youngstown. Don't consider only job opportunities in the Steel Valley. Take advantage of labor shortages wherever they may be from Cleveland all the way to Morgantown, WV.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blog Release: Rust Fest

At the McDonough Museum of Art:

RUST FEST digital arts and new media festival
June 13 - July 24, 2009
Opening Reception, Saturday, June 13, 6:00-8:00pm
At 7 pm in the McDonough Museum Auditorium, a performance piece by Leslie Raymond and Jason Jay Stevens, professors in New Media at the University of Texas at San Antonio will take place. They will present a live mix of music and video projection.

Youngstown-Pittsburgh Connections

The relationship between Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh is obvious to residents of the Steel Valley. I won't speak for Cleveland, but I know from firsthand experience that Youngstown isn't on the mental maps of most Pittsburghers, who seem oblivious of what is going on in Lordstown (to cite one important example). Because Youngstown is located in Ohio, the linkages to Cleveland are more obvious. But I'd argue that the relationship with Pittsburgh is, at the very least, as important.

I'm not the only one who thinks this way. There's a new regional initiative for Pittsburgh and it includes Youngstown. In fact, one of the prizes for naming this expansive region are tickets to the Youngstown Historical Center of Labor & Industry. Have any good ideas? Make a submission.

Another common vision binding the two cities is the Working Class Studies Association (WCSA). An upcoming conference in Pittsburgh has already been held in Youngstown and the WCSA reveals the connectivity between institutions of higher education:

“The conference caps off the Pittsburgh 250 celebration by looking at the city's history of production and struggle, how time and again the aims of political and corporate elites collided with homegrown, organized resistance-how this class-based resistance often created improved conditions,” said conference cochair Charles McCollester, director of the Pennsylvania Center for Labor Relations and professor of industrial and labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).

In addition to WCSA, IUP's labor center, and Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences, the June conference is supported by programs and volunteers from Pitt's Departments of English, Anthropology, History, and Sociology and the Cultural Studies and Women's Studies programs; Carlow University Women's Studies Program; Carnegie Mellon University Department of English; Chatham University; Duquesne University Women's and Gender Studies Center; Youngstown State University Center for Working-Class Studies; the United Steelworkers of America; and the Battle of Homestead Foundation.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I don't see any Cleveland representation. The industrial valleys stretching from Youngstown all the way to Morgantown, WV have a lot in common. This region is more Appalachia than Midwest. And as the Business Journal's Staci Erdos puts it, there is no reason why Pittsburgh's recent reinvention and success can't extend to Youngstown:

After covering the 2008 presidential campaign, I started thinking very seriously about public service. I had seen Pittsburgh go through remarkable changes over the 10 years I covered the city. Allegheny County had changed its form of governance from three commissioners to a county executive. I witnessed the move toward greater regionalization.

I saw Pittsburgh further its emergence from a Rust Belt city to a high-tech center, luring major corporate headquarters.

And I saw Pittsburgh’s waterfront transformed into a destination location. I felt, and still feel, optimistic this same kind of transformation could be in Youngstown’s future.

I feel the same way.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Youngstown Urban Frontier

Most people don't understand why I'm so bullish on Rust Belt cities in general and Youngstown specifically. Sean Safford's book "Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngstown" can help me explain. Dr. Safford investigates why Allentown and Youngstown have had different economic fortunes in dealing with the collapse of manufacturing. Youngstown is likely inclined to tune out Safford's research because it puts the region in a bad light. But before dismissing him out of hand, consider his response to a request for help from his native Buffalo:

My parents have moved, I've been back to Buffalo a few times and would be happy to get involved in trying to revitalize the city. It's why I wrote the book, really. The article quotes me accurately: I don't think there's any escaping from the fact that the health of city's economy depends on having a vibrant, growing set of companies which not only employ people but that are also providing real value in the market. But the real point I make is about the relationship between economic development and the involvement of the leaders of large companies. Buffalo and other places suffer from a critical lack of leadership. Not because politicians and other community leaders aren't trying; but because politicians' and civic leaders' efforts are hampered by the lack of active participation among the leaders of companies. It used to be that the leader of big companies were practically required to be active in civic affairs. Thats not the case anymore and I think its a problem...... That said, I'm always chomping for an excuse to come back to Buffalo and would be very very happy to discuss my ideas with anyone willing to listen.

Safford isn't damning Youngstown so much as he's trying to figure out the best way forward. Since most Rust Belt cities aren't doing so well, I'd expect that at least some criticism is warranted. I hope that Youngstown, and any other shrinking city, would be open to his advice.

Back to his book. I haven't read it. Yet. But I did listen to an interview with Safford about his work and a recent review of the book zeroes in on what has been missing in Youngstown:

The result of these historical differences was that Youngstown was much less prepared to weather the storm of the steel industry collapse. Allentown had the institutional tools to deal with the crisis, which led to further investing in the community by business leaders. Youngstown business leaders, by comparison, became more isolated from the community. The community in Youngstown became a source of dependence for its business leaders rather than a source of identity and pride.

Safford's communication to the good people of Buffalo makes clear that greater involvement of the heads of local businesses is desirable. Another way to look at it is that political power became concentrated in the hands of a dense, tightly-knit network. As the old guard circled the wagons, Youngstown continued to rapidly deteriorate. My theory is that this dramatic collapse creates opportunities you won't find in Allentown, better opening up the political space for bottom-up economic development.

Thus, a person born in Erie, PA living outside of Denver, CO can receive a grant to build a talent network for Greater Youngstown. I see Youngstown as a place where bold ideas can find expression instead of a civic gatekeeper questioning your native credentials. That's very rare in the Rust Belt where parochial attitudes stifle outsider participation.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rust Belt Brain Drain

The idea for creating a diaspora network for Greater Youngstown stems from my investigation of the brain drain in Western Pennsylvania. My father was an engineer for General Electric in Erie, PA. Looming layoffs drove my family first to Schenectady, NY and then Burlington, VT. Most of my relatives made the more typical out-migration, ending up in cities such as Charlotte, NC. While the exodus of what almost amounts to a generation of workers has abated, Rust Belt expatriates such as myself still feel a deep attachment to our hometowns and are the pioneers of a nascent movement to revitalize America's urban frontier (hat tip Rust Wire):

It's tough for some folks to understand that many of us want to be here. We didn't end up here by inertia or lack of vision or better options. We're educated and mobile; we can live anywhere. We choose to stay -- or to return.

That is the case for my husband and I and many Generation Xers and Yers who are committed to Metro Detroit and the Rust Belt, even as the region struggles to get through this extraordinarily difficult economic crisis.

We return because we love the people and the culture. We stay because we're proud of our roots, of who we are. We're not naïve about this region's daunting challenges; we're choosing to tackle them. We're committed to our families and communities.

Yet we need good reasons to stay and return, too. We need our region to get a whole lot smarter about implementing new strategies to develop a global Midwest that will thrive in the global economy.

The great irony is that, compared to other cities and regions, Rust Belt natives are more likely to stay put. Furthermore, when brains leave the state, they tend to travel short distances. A common destination for Mahoning County residents is Pittsburgh. And a popular location for Pittsburgh brain drain is, perhaps surprising to most people, Youngstown. If a college graduate relocates to another Rust Belt state, is that a problem we should address?

To expand the point, consider this column in a Michigan newspaper about competing with China:

China has entered the next generation of auto technology, manufacturing affordable, reliable electric cars, to win. With the worldwide problem of greenhouse gases, climate change and depleting oil reserves, this is a race America can ill afford to lose.

At the recent Shanghai auto show, the hot car was produced in the city of Shenzhen, a modern city of more than 10 million that did not exist a quarter of a century ago, by a company few in America have ever heard of — BYD, aka “Build Your Dreams.” This company began as a rechargeable-battery maker, and now is making an assertive thrust to become a major player in the production of electric cars.

The company has attracted some significant attention with backing for its auto venture from no less an American icon than billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway chairman, Warren Buffet.

The Toledo Blade newspaper recently quoted Paul Lin, a manager in the company’s auto export trade, “Toledo is quite a good place. It would be a good place to set up a manufacturing site.” So, is Michigan, Mr. Lin.

Well, better a manufacturing site in Toledo than Shenzhen, right? The scale of competition is global, not regional. The brains we miss most are the ones starting companies in Silicon Valley, not the locals now working in Pittsburgh, Columbus or Indianapolis. We shouldn't worry about who is leaving, particularly when they move next door.

The game of economic development is all about attracting talent and new businesses. Those expatriates highly motivated to return are particularly valuable. This isn't brain drain so much as it is a study abroad program. But negotiating a way home isn't easy. Our job at Greater Youngstown 2.0 is to pave the way.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Mythical Geographies of Youngstown

I'm sure everyone has seen an old map depicting an ocean as the home of terrible monsters. The cartographer isn't indulging an artist's prerogative. The image is meant to convey that the territory is unknown. Unfamiliar spaces are the places where myths and folklore thrive, allowing us to manage a seemingly chaotic world.

The Rust Belt is a similar region of wonderment for the American psyche. At least, that's true for the centers of culture on either coast. As fellow-blog-in-arms, I WILL SHOUT YOUNGSTOWN notes, the curious invocation of Youngstown on the television show The Office is the buzz of the watercooler this morning. The reaction of outsiders is most telling:

I have had my doubts before. In one episode the boys from Scranton drove to Utica and back to battle Karen (a three hour drive) and made it back well before the end of the work day. Tonight's episode clinched it: the writers of "The Office" have no knowledge of rust belt geography. ...

... I'm sure there's some small gag factor in getting married in Youngstown, generally considered one of the worst cities in America, I get that. But that's why you're pros... find another awful city that's drivable.

The comments following the post depict Youngstown in even a less flattering light. The view from Dayton:

I lived in dayton, ohio. a very short trip to youngstown, or as most people around southern ohio like to say, Gunstown. I would never want to get married there, Youngstown is a HUGE place for the bloods gang. I mean it, huge. Gunstown, they do have a good diary farm though, with good ice cream.

I can tell you that a person who has never been to Ohio wouldn't make any distinction between Dayton and Youngstown. He or she wouldn't want to get married anywhere in the entire state. Heck, the entire Midwest might be taboo. Such is the lot of Flyover America.

More troubling is the ignorance within the Rust Belt. I'm a native of Erie, PA who champions Pittsburgh from a residence in the Front Range of Colorado. My image of Youngstown is one of corruption and mafia-plagued. However, that could apply to my hometown. But since I'm intimate with the city, the local crime syndicate doesn't dominate my impression of Northwestern PA.

Still worse are the cynics who actually hail from Youngstown. Some are economically and politically disenfranchised. Others are just itching for a new place, new experience. All think that nothing good or interesting can happen in the Mahoning Valley.

Enter the outsider, a place hopper, who adopts a city. Erie has Rochester-born Peter Panepento. Pittsburgh has this Erieite blogger. And, of course, Youngstown has Phil Kidd (from Southwestern PA). We represent a different kind of mythical geography, one of possibility. Such is the reward for those willing to brave the monsters of Greater Youngstown.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Steel Valley Diaspora

Back in February of 2009, I wrote a blog post about a National Public Radio story that elicited a huge nationwide response. Jim Cossler, CEO of the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI), characterized the overwhelming reaction:

So...I heard yesterday from some childhood friends I had lost touch with who are now living in Chicago, Houston and Phoenix.

And we probably heard, based on an eyeball estimate of my email in-box, from another 500 people from places like New York City, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, San Jose and Denver. All thanks to National Public Radio nationally broadcasting a story yesterday morning to its 13 million listeners on the amazing software technology cluster being built by our organization in Youngstown, Ohio.

But, here's what we're most excited about.

We received countless numbers of emails from people who grew up in Western Pennsylvania or Northeastern Ohio, but who are now living in places across the country. They told us how thrilled they were to hear the story. They told us they wanted to learn more about what was going on. They told us that they wanted to visit with us the next time they came "home".

That's great, but we're going to go one step further.

We're going to be working very hard to get them all to move "home".

When I read Cossler's account, I immediately envisioned the perfect diaspora networking project. You want to get them to move home? I can do that for you.

Literally two and one half months later, here I am crafting the inaugural post for Greater Youngstown 2.0. The centerpiece of this initiative is a LinkedIn group with the express purpose of networking the Steel Valley Diaspora. At this virtual community, those desiring to boomerang back home can seek the help of fellow expatriates and key stakeholders who are already writing their own success stories in Greater Youngstown.

Need a job for a trailing spouse? We'll track one down for you. Not sure how to best relocate? We'll share best practices. Worried about schools for your children? We'll find the right fit for your needs.

If you haven't figured it out yet, there is something special brewing in Youngstown. Anyone who wants to the join the cause can do so through our network. I've studied how a diaspora can dramatically transform its homeland and sow the seeds of prosperity. The future of Greater Youngstown depends upon its talented expatriates.