Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Right-Sizing Youngstown

There is a different brand of Youngstown making its way across the country and even around the world. To be sure, the economic devastation of the Mahoning Valley is still prominent. But the innovative vanguard is making waves and even inspiring new corporate strategies:

Wangler believes the term “right-sizing” may have new relevance for the strategic thinking of truckers these days – and for one, he does not believe that if you can‘t make companies bigger, they‘re on a path to extinction.

He pointed to the revitalization of Youngstown, Ohio, as an example – an American steel town that with a population of 168,000 in the 1950s that seemed destined to grow forever, with city leaders back then envisioning the city being home to a quarter of a million people by the end of the century. Instead, by the 1980s, the steel industry had gone into a tailspin. Today, only a single, large steel mill is left and the city’s population is half of what it was in 1950.

While most of the mills have been torn down, the city has thousands of empty buildings and it still has 535 miles of roads that need to be maintained and kept free of snow and ice all winter. Like other Midwestern cities in similar straits, Youngstown tried to find some big employers to replace steel, such as prisons (both private and public), while also re-developing some of the former steel-mill sites into industrial parks. Yet none of those efforts ended up replacing jobs that vanished along with the steel industry.

Then in 2005, Youngstown elected Jay Williams, a former city planner, to be their mayor. He addressed the city’s problems with a radically simple concept –if the city removed its unused buildings and large chunks of un-needed infrastructure, it could then focus on improving its services and better align its expenses with tax revenues.

By reducing its obsolete infrastructure, the city could position itself for a much more sustainable future, one that might include a new era of growth, but not one that desperately needed growth to ensure its survival.

“Youngstown‘s approach to a future without foreseeable population growth is controversial,” said Wangler. “Accepting that a city is going to shrink, and even planning to help it shrink seems like a rejection of the American idea of progress, where a bigger city means more jobs, more tax revenues, better education, and better services.”

Yet he stressed that the “carrying capacity” of a city, or its ability to sustain its residents, is ultimately determined by its tax base, with the infrastructure needs of businesses and residents have to be balanced against available tax revenues.

“For decades, professors of urban planning have taught that the inability to grow a city‘s population is a terminal condition; all city planning strategies must revolve around growth, and city leadership should focus on stimulating that growth,” Wangler explained. “So is Youngstown just preparing for its extinction, or is it emphasizing quality over quantity? Well it‘s early in the new ballgame, but … it’s choosing an improved quality of life for its citizens by seeking creative alternatives to conventional growth.”

This idea of shrinking instead of growing in order to be more profitable is something that must wend its way into trucking, Wrangler believes. “Typically, [trucking] companies thrived for years by putting as many trucks on the road as possible and working to keep every truck on the road every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, declining freight volumes meant that more and more of those road miles were empty and unpaid miles.”

What, exactly, is the "new ballgame"? Demography is a big part of it. Shrinking cities are a global phenomenon. The wealthiest countries are aging and some are even beginning to lose people. Such realities demand a new economic paradigm.

When people consider an uncertain future, some of them are looking to Youngstown for a way forward. I would add that we need to embrace out-migration just as we make peace with a declining population. Ignore the handwriting on the wall at your own peril. Youngstown is one of the few places assessing the situation with open eyes. The world awaits the next round of civic entrepreneurship.

1 comment:

  1. Youngstown 2010 Plan:

    Vacant Property Initiative:

    Vacant Property Organizing Strategy:

    Youngstown, OH: A Model of Sustainability