The South we should want to learn from

For decades we have been told by much of the organized business community and conservative policy makers and pundits that Michigan needs to move in the direction of the low tax/small government/right to work South to be economically successful. Which, as I have written frequently (for example this previous post), is a recipe for getting poorer. With the exception of Virginia, Southern states are characterized by low personal income and low education attainment. Why would we want to be like them?

Turns out that increasingly the business and political leadership in the big metropolitan areas of the South and Southwest understand that there is a different recipe for success in the 21st Century. Alan Ehrenhalt reports on their new economic growth agenda in his highly recommended new book, The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City:

In the first decade of the new century, in cities all over the American South and Southwest, something puzzlingly happened. … leaders of these sprawl-based conurbations that have grown enormously in the past generation began to express deep longing for a downtown. … So it was in a remarkably few years, Phoenix and Dallas and Charlotte did things they would have been considered unthinkable a decade or two before. They spent billions of public dollars on light-rail transit systems; they drafted long-term ‘vision” documents that projected a future in which downtowns were friendly to pedestrians rather than automobiles; they won voter support for striking new public buildings and placed them as close to the center of the city as they could.

Why did they want those things? … the desire to recruit and retain big corporations, and the sense these companies were uneasy locating in a metropolis without a center. … This was a common refrain across the big Sun Belt cities. In the words of Michael Smith, Charlotte’s director of downtown development, the bankers who dominated the town’s economic strategy felt they had to have downtown amenities “to attract hip young professionals.” Virtually all of these Sun Belt cities agrees with the geographer Richard Florida that future prosperity depended on the ability to lure the “creative class,” and that this could be done only with a thriving urban culture.

Yes you read that right. Business and political leadership in the South making central cities/downtowns/quality of place an economic development priority; supporting spending billions of taxpayers money on light rail and other central city development projects; and supporting voter approved tax increases. Ehrenhalt writes these Southern leaders have learned from New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland that having a big city downtown “with a sophisticated urban scene that would appeal to the bright young college graduates” is now an economic imperative.

This is the lesson from the South that our business and political leadership – particularly in metropolitan Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing – need to learn. That the models for future economic success in a flattening world are New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland plus non costal cities like Minneapolis, Denver and Madison, rather than low cost states. That the path to future prosperity is increasingly talent driven and that to concentrate talent you need a big metropolitan area anchored by a vibrant central city.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. I lived in the South (Dallas, Texas) for about 11 years in the middle of my career. I have spent much shorter times with relatives and friends or on other short work assignments in other Southern states. I agree with your analysis as it applies to the other Southern states. But Texas seemed to be at least partly different. The biggest reason for the difference I nticed was probably the states huge size in both geography and population. There certainly was a large number of less educated people doing low wage jobs. Some of this was due to a lower education in many areas of the state, but a large part was due to the huge influx of immigrants from Mexico. On the other hand, the large cities of Dallas, Houston and Austin seemed to have well educated workforces and lots of knowledge based jobs. It seemed to me that a lot of young educated people were moving from the midwest and northeast to Dallas. I am not originally from Michigan, but I did have coworkers with degrees from U of M and Michigan State.

  2. Agree about Texas. Its two biggest metros are successful because they are increasingly knowledge-based anchored by increasingly vibrant central cities which has been a priority for the business community. But the state is so large and diverse even Dallas and Houston can’t drive the economy of the whole state. So it ends up middle of the road in most statistics.

  3. The third metro in Texas that is very successful at attracting knowledge industries is Austin which I think is the fourth largest metro in Texas. The third largest metro is San Antonio which I think is making some progress, but is not nearly at the level of the other three yet. As you pointed out Texas is so big that 2-3 successful metros cannot drive the entire state.

    If, in Michigan, we could get our two largest metros going it would have a bigger impact on the entire state.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. We need metro Detroit and metro Grand Rapids to look a lot more like metro Dallas and Houston (and Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, etc.) That is the only recipe for Michigan to be prosperous again. Our big metros have to be talent magnets which will allow for knowledge-based growth which is driving the American economy.

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