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.

1 comment:

  1. Back in the 60's when YSU was coming of age--becoming a state university, I told family and friends that everyone should support their local university with pride, patronage (attendance) and donations. I said that we need to build the university into something great, because one day the mills will be gone and Y-town will be a reconfigured sleepy college town. Nothing wrong with that, but possible only with a strong university decades ahead of the eventual loss of the mills. Now this was a time when people thought I was nuts because steel was king and in their minds was immortal. Industries come and go, but major unversities never do, so make YSU a major educational force and it will save the city one day when things change in unimaginable ways. I am proud to be a YSU alumnus and I've gone far and wide, but alas, I, too, left as my career path was possible in the rusted steel valley. But I am so pleased that YSU continues to strive toward greatness and Godspeed to Y-town in this leg of the journey from steel to med and ed.