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Perspectives: Introducing Our New Blog on Community Development

Perspectives February 2017

Written by Carl Mellor

This essay is the first in a series of commentaries discussing community development not only from a national perspective but also from a point of view focusing on our own Syracuse community.

I’ll begin with discussion of Rust Belt economics, a hot topic during the recent presidential campaign and for 2017. First, the Rust Belt metaphor is imperfect at best. Yes, it provides a succinct term to describe a loss of manufacturing jobs in the Northeast and Midwest regions of the United States.

Yet, Rust Belt territory encompasses dozens of cities ranging from Toledo, Ohio and York, PA to Utica and Syracuse in New York State. Surely, these and other cities have had common experiences during the last 40 years: a decrease in population and household income, increases in unemployment, underemployment, vacant houses and homelessness, decline in full-service grocery stores and banking outlets in the urban core. On the other hand, each municipality has its own identity, specific needs, and possibilities for change.

Second, adopting a catch-all term often leads to general assumptions that may or may out be true. Consider a popular line of discussion which concentrates on a loss of 5.6 million manufacturing jobs in the USA between 2000 and 2010. It’s been argued that this loss is largely due to NAFTA and other trade legislation pertaining to export and import of goods; NAFTA pertains to trade between three nations: the USA, Canada and Mexico.

That NAFTA had an impact, particularly in several Midwest states, is undoubtedly true. At the same time, loss of factory, mill and foundry jobs didn’t begin in 2000. Textile mills in Connecticut and Massachusetts started closing during the 1950s, with the jobs shifting primarily to North Carolina and South Carolina. Decades later, mills in the Carolinas laid off thousands of workers; those jobs typically moved to other countries.

In addition, the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis commissioned a study which concluded that there was a 28 per cent decrease in manufacturing positions between 1950 and 1980.

And various economists have argued that trade arrangements are only one of several factors affecting the industrial sector. Other causes of decline include automation, plant reorganization, and consumer appetite for cheaper goods.

It’s not clear when or if trade protocols will change during 2017. Even if they do, it’s not reasonable to assume that millions of workers will return to good paying jobs any time soon. If a plant closed during 1992, the cost of re-opening it would be a deal breaker for most potential owners. In addition, automation will have an ongoing impact on local economies. Lastly, the workplace has changed drastically during the last 20 years. Companies operating factories are increasingly looking for semi-skilled or skilled workers.

Remediating economic woes in Rust Belt cities is a complex undertaking that can’t pivot on one course of action. There are no quick fixes. Indeed, various communities have been burned by get well quick schemes: casinos, enterprise zones, call center operations demanding subsidies to relocate and then moving once again four years later, and lots more. Sadly, many a community desperate for economic uplift has turned to schemes that have little chance for success.

The idea of first doing no harm doesn’t mandate inaction. Around the country, neighborhood activists, urban planners and some city officials are discussing and implementing varied economic development proposals. In the next commentary, I’ll move on to innovative proposals and programs and strategies for community development.

Read more blogs in this series.