Sunday Forum: Rebuild America's hometowns
We can hear the stampede coming.
During the next few months, John McCain and Barack Obama will be barnstorming through our swing-state cities. The cable networks will stop by our pancake houses to interview folksy customers for some "local color." Our city halls will serve as picturesque backdrops for stump speeches. And our residents will be hailed as the kind of hard-working people who make this country great.
After the campaigns leave, though, it is vital that smaller industrial cities like ours -- and brethren in places like New Castle, McKeesport and Johnstown -- are not simply forgotten on the national stage. We have been left in the shadows for far too long.
The more than 7 million Americans who live in cities like ours are essential to the nation's economic future, cultural vibrancy and community well-being.
Cities like ours in the Northeast and Midwest once were the backbone that sustained the middle class and helped make America one of the most prosperous nations the world has ever known. Even the names evoke a chronicle of American industrial growth -- Youngstown, Ohio; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Schenectady, N.Y.; Scranton, Pa.
In recent decades, though, we have fallen on hard times. Economic and social factors have drained many cities like ours of residents and businesses.
We can be strong again -- and we know what it will take to get us there. We are blessed with rich legacies and the urban infrastructure that comes with it.
In an era of environmental awareness and sky-high gas prices, cities like ours already are built around walkable downtowns, with shops, housing and businesses within easy reach. Sprawling suburbs are spending millions of dollars to create the kind of community space that cities like ours already offer.
These walkable cityscapes are becoming attractive for huge numbers of Americans. Young families, new professionals and retiring Baby Boomers are increasingly looking beyond the spread-out suburbs in favor of more dense, more pedestrian-friendly areas. With our museums, shops, college campuses and park spaces, our cities are perfectly suited for many to call home -- all on a smaller, more manageable scale than spread-out suburbs or big cities.
A report to be released this week by the national advocacy group PolicyLink proposes ways cities like ours can leverage our existing assets to be stronger and more fair for all our residents.
Smaller cities -- unlike their larger counterparts -- are tailor-made for the kind of flexible innovation required to compete in the new global economy. Bureaucracies are leaner. Results can be seen more quickly. Novel approaches to public and private sector challenges can be kick-started on a manageable scale.
Already, many of these cities are leading the charge for public policy innovation, creating opportunities for all their citizens. For instance:
• In Youngstown, the Business Incubator looks to reverse the "brain drain" by giving home-grown, young innovators and entrepreneurs focused on business-to-business software the support and mentorship they need to succeed.
• In Scranton, blighted parks have been reclaimed to provide civic gathering places and to draw families seeking a mix of urban and suburban living.
• In Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Promise looks to lure young families and promote economic recovery by providing college scholarships to all eligible graduates of the city's public school system.
• In New York State's "Tech Valley" region, several small cities are tying job training in underserved communities to the burgeoning tech sector, uniting economic development with workforce development.
Advocates and elected officials like us are working diligently to renew the promise in our cities. But we need the support of the federal government.
The proposed National Infrastructure Bank would be a major boon to smaller cities that are too often overlooked when it comes time to dole out federal money to fix bridges, roads and water systems -- the backbone of a successful economy. By giving cities like ours a fair share, we could leverage our substantial existing strengths. Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure is a vital step to renewing our cities.
We are not naive. We know the problems facing smaller industrial cities did not appear overnight -- and they will not disappear quickly, either. We know that, before long, the campaign klieg lights will dim on our swing-state cities.
But America cannot afford to leave us in the shadows. Our people have the skills, the tools and the drive to serve as beacons for just, fair and equitable redevelopment. We will be strong again.
First Published July 20, 2008 12:00 am