Thursday, October 5, 2017

New Research Alert: 2017 Distressed Communities Index

Recently, the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) published its 2017 Distressed Communities Index. EIG, a bipartisan public policy organization founded in 2013, took a look at seven data indicators:

l  Housing vacancy rate
l  Poverty rate
l  Percentage change in number of jobs from 2011 - 2015
l  Percentage change in number of businesses from 2011 - 2015
l  Percent of unemployed adults between the ages of 25 and 64
l  Percent of population aged 25 and older without a high school diploma
l  Each geography’s median income as a percentage of its state’s median income

From there, a distress score is calculated by taking the average of the rankings in each of the data indicators. Then, the geographies are grouped into quintiles: “distressed” refers to the worst-performing quintile, the fourth is “at risk”, the third is “mid-tier”, the second-best is considered “comfortable”, and the best-performing quintile is “prosperous”. This was done for ZIP codes, cities, counties, and states.


The following are high-level and very intriguing takeaways from the report, shedding light on characteristics of and disparities affecting distressed communities across the nation.

  • One in six, or 52.3 million, Americans live in economically distressed ZIP codes. Of these, approximately 13 million are children.
  • Distressed communities collectively have not yet recovered from the recession, with a 6.0 percent average decline in employment and a 6.3 percent average decrease in establishments from 2011 to 2015. Meanwhile, the country as a whole added 10.7 million net jobs and 310,000 net establishments. Over half of the national increase in establishments (57 percent) and in jobs (52 percent) occurred in prosperous communities.
  • Many of the distressed ZIP codes have experienced no gains at all since 2000, long before the Great Recession. In fact, two-thirds of distressed ZIPs had fewer jobs in 2015 than they did in 2000.
  • Over half of the nation’s population living in distressed ZIP codes live in the South. In the South, distressed communities are primarily rural. In the Northeast, these communities are mostly urban. In the Midwest, distressed populations are pretty evenly spread across neighborhood types. Prosperous communities are largely suburban.
  • Not surprisingly, understanding the close link between economic well-being and physical health, the average life expectancy is shorter in distressed ZIPs – nearly five years shorter than residents of prosperous ZIP codes. Mental illness, substance abuse, and life-threatening diseases are more prevalent in distressed communities. Research shows that if in a distressed community, a person with disabilities is more likely to leave the labor force.
  • Most minority groups are overrepresented in distressed communities and underrepresented in prosperous ones, while white and Asian residents are overrepresented in prosperous and comfortable ZIPs. However, though they are underrepresented in distressed ZIPs, white residents make up the largest demographic living in distressed ZIP codes, accounting for 22.9 million of Americans living in the lowest quintile communities.

Why does this matter? It’s important for regions to understand intraregional dynamics, understanding that some areas may need more attention, more investment, and different approaches than others. To ensure that communities are thriving, understanding the linkages and likelihood for success of the varying levels of prosperity or lack thereof can help guide solutions. Keeping in mind that quality of place is one of the top two priorities in economic development today, behind only talent, improving distressed communities can only make regions more attractive, thereby making them more competitive for talent and jobs. Take a look at this report for more details of how distressed communities compare to others, and take a look at the website to find out how your community fares.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

2016 Poverty and Income in the United States

By Katie Thomas, Project Associate 

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released 2016 data on income and poverty in the United States. These estimates are intended to gauge the overall well-being of the country. The high-level summary of statistics reveals that the median household income was $59,039 in 2016 and that there was a real over-the-year increase of 3.2 percent. At the same time, the poverty rate fell by 0.8 percentage points with roughly 2.5 million fewer people living in poverty than there were in 2015. Combined, the two measures are positive outcomes and indicate that residents, on average, are better off than they were the previous year.

A deeper dive into the data reveals some more interesting findings. For example, the main reason that household incomes have increased is due to the fact that there were simply more people working in 2016 than there were in 2015. With an unemployment rate of less than five percent and the number of jobs continuing to grow, individuals are finding employment. The Census estimates that last year there were 1.2 million more people with earnings and 2.2 million more individuals working full-time, year-round. This suggests that in addition to more people finding jobs, there was also an increase in the number of workers that were able to find full-time employment as opposed to part-time work. As a result, the adage that a job is the best antipoverty program proves true with fewer people living in poverty in 2016.

Household Income at Select Percentiles*

Source: United States Census Bureau
*Income in 2016 CPI-U-RS adjusted dollars.


So, what are some of the issues highlighted in the report? For one, income inequality continues to be a challenge. When adjusted for inflation, household income for the bottom tenth of households was roughly eight percent less than it was in 2000. At the other end of the income spectrum, household income at the 95th percentile was 11.3 percent higher than it was in 2000. More recent trends do indicate that income growth over the past five years has been more equitable among the top 90 percent of households but still show a growing gap for the poorest of households.

Secondly, despite healthy growth in the labor market and household income, wage growth remains stubbornly slow. Typically, the main source of income for low-income households is through wages, whereas higher income households also tend to acquire income through investments and other sources. As such, the nation’s slow wage growth is more acutely felt by individuals at the lower income levels. As of August 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that average hourly earnings had increased by 2.5 percent over the previous 12 month period. Wage growth of 2.5 percent outpaces inflation, but just barely. When wages grow at a faster pace than inflation, workers see their standards of living raise and employees at all income levels and wage rates are able to benefit from the overall economic growth.

Additional data with a breakdown of income and poverty by race and Hispanic origin, geographic regions, gender, age, and other characteristics can be explored in the report. For local level data, 2016 income and poverty statistics for school districts, counties, and states is expected to be released in December 2017. For now though, 2015 estimates are available at their website. The Census Bureau provides an interactive data and mapping tool that is pretty user-friendly and can be explored here.

The recent income and poverty report by the Census Bureau shows that progress is being made but there is still more work to do. Additionally, it highlights the importance of having quality data available to be able to gauge the economic well-being of the population. As the next decennial census of the U.S. population is gearing up for 2020, federal budget uncertainty regarding funding for the census have unfortunately raised concerns about the Bureau’s ability to conduct a reliable count of the population and its characteristics. The decennial census, especially, is critical as all of the following decade’s data will use the 2020 Census as the baseline for future surveys. Also, among other uses, the decennial census provides vital data to measure the effectiveness and progress of the many programs and projects that rely on its data, in addition to helping policymakers and elected officials make informed decisions.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) – an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress – put the 2020 Decennial Census on its list of High Risk areas, or federal programs that are “vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, or that need transformative change.” Ultimately, it is critical that the Bureau have the proper funding so that it can hire the necessary workers and implement the essential IT systems and other innovations that are needed to produce a cost-effective and reliable enumeration. Fortunately, there’s still time to save the 2020 decennial Census, but that will depend on if our elected officials make funding for the Census a top priority. It’s certainly something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks as Congress negotiates the 2018 federal budget.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Topeka Momentum 2022 Receives Outstanding Coverage From Local Newspaper



By Kat Lapersonerie, Administrative Assistant

Over the years, our team has seen many of our clients invest significant time and energy into their strategy launch. We’ve consistently seen our clients cultivate positive relationships with media partners, government officials, institutions and corporations in the effort of successfully marketing their community economic and development strategies.

Communities such as Des Moines, who since 2011 has partnered with top leaders in the Central Iowa region on their Capital Crossroads initiative, have had highly successful campaigns. In 2010, Birmingham launched a comprehensive five-year economic development strategy by the name of Blueprint Birmingham. Other communities like Watertown, South Dakota have been praised by their local media for their H20-20 visioning process. Their initiative has been recognized as “perhaps the most intensive citizen-driven effort ever developed in South Dakota” by the Watertown Public Opinion newspaper.

Market Street’s recently completed process in Topeka, Kansas has also received great coverage from the local newspaper, The Topeka Capital-Journal. But on Sunday August 6, the community and the newspaper took things to the next level with an outstanding 30-page special section that highlights the community’s Momentum 2022 strategy and the programs, initiatives, and people that will work to make Topeka-Shawnee County a more successful and prosperous place.

The strength of the Momentum 2022 strategy and the media coverage can be attributed to visionary community and staff leadership. A volunteer Steering Committee chaired by Shawnee County Commissioner Shelly Buhler, Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast, and Bartlett & West CEO Keith Warta. The Committee was comprised of dynamic leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, including the publisher of The Topeka Capital-Journal, Zach Ahrens. With the aid of his team, Matt Pivarnik, who is the President and CEO of the Topeka Chamber and Go Topeka, has worked closely and tirelessly with The Topeka Capital-Journal and others to ensure that Momentum 2022 is well-publicized as the blueprint for the community’s future. Based on this coverage we would say they are well on their way!

To view all articles on Momentum 22 visit: cjonline.com/momentum2022



A sampling of some of the articles from Momentum 2022 here:

· Collaborate for a strong community: Despite challenges, Topeka residents see city moving in positive direction

· Live chat: Covering all the bases of Momentum 2022 in Topeka, Shawnee County

· Grow a diverse economy: Tracking metrics will help Topeka leaders determine the right path

· Young professionals leave Topeka to pursue career, come back to work and live


Ref: 08/17/2017

District Revitalization Versus Stabilization

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

Imagine you had a job where the more successful you were, the more you were criticized. If you accomplished your assigned mission and had the metrics to prove it, but suddenly the rules of the game changed in midstream. Such is the fate of the local economic developer charged with revitalizing underinvested commercial districts. The more success he or she has, the greater the likelihood of a backlash under the guise of the “g” word: gentrification – a process as old as cities themselves. No less a source than The Onion has satirized on this trend. In the article “Decaying City Just Wants to Skip to Part Where It Gets Revitalized Restaurant Scene,” pretend residents wanted “the city’s accelerated revitalization process to then stop just before they are priced out of their current apartments.”

There is no way in the course of one blog to fully summarize or address the thousands of column inches dedicated to the “g” word issue, especially as there has yet to be a definitive study as to its real effects. However, as housing affordability challenges have come to the fore in destination communities and mid-priced cities alike, there must be an honest conversation in the economic/community development world about the long-term goals of urban revitalization. This is especially true as cities like Detroit and Birmingham (where I now live) are seeing a backlash against reinvestment in high-profile districts. These are cities that have spent billions of dollars trying to catalyze this self-same revitalization. 

In Birmingham, the same city government that funded the new and renovated parks and minor league baseball stadium that spurred reinvestment is now empaneling (without supportive data) an “anti-displacement” task force. The reality in Birmingham – like in Detroit – is that only a very small fraction of the city is seeing reinvestment. Well over 90 percent of these communities is still suffering from high poverty and crime rates, underperforming schools, vacancies and blight, and widespread depopulation. 

At the core of the debate over urban reinvestment is the question of who benefits: existing residents or those who start new businesses, work at those businesses, and become new residents. Because history has shown that these two groups are typically not the same. I have yet to see a district “Brookyn-ization” that has successfully navigated this issue; if a case study exists, I’m not aware of it. 

In fact, cities churn; they just do. Neighborhoods rise and fall, residents and businesses move out and others move in; that’s just the effect of the free market. As such, what I’m referring to in this post is government’s role in the revitalization process. You can retroactively try to engender affordability, as a local researcher just described for Atlanta, or proactively implement measures favoring existing residents.

The conundrum becomes, do you presuppose that reinvestment will occur (even in places that have not seen revitalization for decades) and build in anti-displacement policies on the front end or wait until reinvestment occurs and reactively implement resident protections? The challenge becomes that preemptive anti-displacement policies increase the cost of investing in neighborhoods that may not have any appeal for private dollars (hence the need for revitalization incentives). And pro-affordability measures require a tremendous public outlay in an era of ever-diminishing budgets. This is why I find the whole issue so frustrating; cities are forced to simultaneously catalyze investment and prevent against its impacts.

I think a more logical process is to differentiate between neighborhood REVITALIZATION and STABILIZATION and implement policies accordingly. In essence, these are “place” versus “people” strategies. For the sake of argument, let’s say revitalization leads to greater neighborhood desirability and higher housing costs and that current residents are at a disadvantage to benefit from these changes because they have 1) lower incomes and 2) a less robust skill set for higher-wage jobs that would raise their incomes. In this scenario, enabling existing residents to capture the benefits of their revitalizing neighborhood without implementing anti-displacement policies requires upskilling them for more lucrative employment. In some cases, this is a GENERATIONAL process; the lifecycle of a commercial district exists in months and years.

So I propose that governments assess – somewhat akin to a zoning process – what commercial districts and adjacent neighborhoods warrant the revitalization versus the stabilization designation. Revitalization zones would implement place-based strategies such as destination amenity development, investment tax credits, forgivable small business loans, streetscaping and other aesthetic improvements, and additional tactics that have demonstrated results in spurring reinvestment. Property values and taxes, rents, and other market-driven metrics will not be mitigated and district revitalization will be allowed to proceed unhindered. While displacement may occur, the tax-base enhancements, destination appeal, and talent attraction benefits of the district will not be challenged.

Stabilization zones will receive more nuanced attention consistent with holistic programs such as HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods initiative, which is “designed to catalyze critical improvements in neighborhood assets, including vacant property, housing, services and schools.” Efforts will focus less on attraction of outside investment and more on uplifting the prospects of existing district residents.

Whether or not the revitalization vs. stabilization designation is politically palatable would remain to be seen. It might be more viable in some communities rather than others. But absent major innovations in reinvestment policy or workforce training, I don’t see a diminishing of the “g” word’s divisive impacts on urban areas and economies.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Implementing Amidst Skepticism

In 2013, Market Street Services was retained by a collaborative group of leaders and organizations in Macon-Bibb County, Georgia to facilitate a community and economic development strategic planning process. This process came to be known as One Macon.


It didn’t take long for public education to emerge in the public input phase as the community’s greatest competitive challenge and its most divisive issue. As our Competitive Assessment noted:

“When asked about the biggest challenges in Macon-Bibb, one input participant said, ‘1A and 1B are race and education.’ This sentiment succinctly summarizes a clear picture that emerged throughout the input process: the K-12 education system is one of the largest and most important challenges in Macon-Bibb, and the issue is inseparable from larger issues of race and class. In the eyes of many input participants, Macon-Bibb’s K-12 education system is better described as two systems divided along racial and socioeconomic lines. According to focus group participants, one is private, predominantly white, and performing at a high level; the other is public, predominantly black, and badly struggling.”

In the 2011-12 school year, the graduation rate in all Bibb County Schools was 52.3 percent. This was the fifth-worst rate among the state’s 179 traditional school districts and 17.5 percentage points below the state average for all systems (69.7). On the ACT, a national standardized test for college admissions, Bibb County students scored an average of 17.3 in the 2010-11 school year, nearly four points lower than the national average (21.1). Furthermore, while others made progress, the average score in Bibb County Schools dropped by 1.1 points between the 2005-06 and 2010-11 school years.

The leadership of the One Macon process, embodied by a Steering Committee of community leaders, quickly prioritized education in the strategic planning process; “Schools” accompanied “Jobs” and “Places” as one of the three pillars of the One Macon strategy. Throughout 2013, the Steering Committee reviewed a series of best practices and potential recommendations, and ultimately determined that The Leader in Me, a leadership program targeting elementary schools (and subsequently middle schools), was an appropriate fit for Macon-Bibb County. The program and its early success stories – notably A.B. Combs Elementary in Raleigh, North Carolina – have been well-documented, and the program is now being implemented in more than 3,000 public, private, and charter schools around the world. To help secure funding, establish a pilot of The Leader in Me program, and advance a series of other collaborative education initiatives, the One Macon strategy called for the establishment of a new Business Education Partnership (BEP).

Fast forward to October 2014. Roughly six months after the One Macon strategic planning process concluded, the first meeting of the new Business Education Partnership (BEP) was held. Decades of failed partnerships and false starts – many predicated upon a lack of trust rooted in the aforementioned “white flight” from the public school system – resulted in an aura of skepticism about the intentions and viability of a Business Education Partnership in 2014. On that day in October 2014, the Business Education Partnership discussed a series of values to uphold (candor, mutual respect, courage to discuss difficult conversations, and commitment to action, among others), and a set of characteristics that they wanted to avoid (fear of conflict, defensive dialogue, and lack of accountability, among others). 

Fast forward another three years. The Business Education Partnership and the One Macon initiative have successfully launched the Leader in Me in multiple elementary and middle schools throughout the community, supported by a $2.1 million campaign to fully fund implementation across all 27 elementary and middle schools. In April of this year, the Griffith Family Foundation made the largest donation to date – a $250,000 contribution to support expansion of the program in the years ahead. The program has just begun its third year in two elementary schools that served as the initial pilot programs – Sonny Carter and Burdell-Hunt Elementary – while others are entering their second year. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators have all noted the impact in just one or two years of implementation. The program is often frequently cited for its impacts on student’s commitment to their coursework, communication habits, and leadership attributes, which manifest themselves in a variety of outcomes. Student suspensions at the two pilot schools were cut in half in just the first year of implementation, dropping from 352 incidents to 168. 

You can read more about Macon-Bibb’s Leader in Me implementation progress here: https://macontheleaderinme.com/

The program’s implementation, the Business Education Partnership (BEP), and the entire One Macon strategic planning and implementation process would not have been possible without the vision and leadership of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, and the One Macon Steering Committee. Numerous chambers of commerce around the country have led successful efforts to launch The Leader in Me in the community’s school system; the Decatur-Morgan County (AL) Chamber of Commerce helped advance the first district-wide implementation of The Leader in Me in the world. Many other chambers were inspired by the remarks delivered by Leader in Me students at the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE) Annual Convention in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2009. ACCE is a great resource for other chambers looking to learn how their peers have led these successful initiatives, as are your peers in Macon-Bibb, Decatur-Morgan County, and others around the country.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Nuclear Energy: A Crystal Ball into the Future Talent Shortage?


By: Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Nuclear energy has always been a thing of fascination for me. Growing up, my father, who makes sure communities across the Southeast can safely evacuate their population in case of a nuclear meltdown like Fukushima, would casually tell us what went wrong at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island around the dinner table. This lecture also came with a basic lesson in the intricacies of nuclear power generation. So, whenever I come across any headline with “nuclear” in the title it is an automatic must read. Yesterday this title popped up on my newsfeed: “South Carolina May Spend 60 Years Paying for Nukes Never Built.”[1] An odd headline since just a few years ago pundits were claiming that a “nuclear renaissance” was soon to occur in the United States.

What happened to the nascent renaissance? A combination of factors prevented it from becoming more than a declarative statement. The rise of cheap natural gas and cost-competitive clean energy technologies like wind and solar are two primary reasons. Both have called into question the high front-end and continuing operational costs of nuclear power. But the decline of the nuclear power industry in the United States is further compounded by another important period in American history: Three Mile Island. As a result of the partial meltdown, Three Mile Island put a halt to nuclear power plant construction and when it kicked back into gear, new construction faced immense public opposition. As a result, the technical expertise developed during the post-war “Atoms for Peace” movement subsided as new construction of nuclear power plants came to a virtual standstill. Flash forward to today and the results of curtailed talent development within the industry is taking its toll.

According to the article, Scana Corporation and Santee Cooper decided to mothball the V.C. Summer project – an AP1000 nuclear power plant designed by Westinghouse. Westinghouse, a Toshiba company, declared bankruptcy in 2017 due, in part, because the company’s newly designed AP1000 reactor had never been built before. The newness of the design and understandable regulatory hurdles led to cost overruns. But a lack of talent was also cited as a key concern as stated by the New York Times, “Not only was the design new, but, because nuclear construction had been dormant for so long, American companies also lacked the equipment and expertise needed to make some of the biggest components and construct the projects.”[2] This statement in March 29, 2017 came just six years after the Nuclear Energy Institute – an industry trade group – warned that more than a third of the nuclear industry’s workforce could retire by 2016. The Institute projected that 25,000 skilled nuclear industry workers would be needed to sustain and grow the sector by 2015.[3]

Indeed, looking at employment figures for the nuclear electric power generation (NAICS 221113) sector reveals that retirements along with utilities decommissioning outdated plants have had an impact on total employment within the sector. From 2006 to 2016, employment within the nuclear power generation sector declined by 18.9 percent. In 2016, there were 12,000 fewer nuclear power generation jobs compared to 2006. This data is likely a conservative estimate since it does not account for construction and engineering jobs attached to building and designing nuclear power plants.  

Nuclear Energy Employment, 2006-2016
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Nuclear energy looks to be in a precarious position in the United States. With only one new plant under construction, the nuclear renaissance predicted some years ago is not likely to materialize. In the big picture, one wonders whether nuclear power is a figurative canary in the coal mine for other business sectors soon to be impacted by Baby Boom retirements. Compounded with under-investment, workforce sustainability issues could undermine the health and wellness of entire sectors of the economy. Simply put, a lack of technical expertise, skilled talent, and knowledge exchange between new and retiring workers were contributing factors to cost overruns in new nuclear plant construction – today’s U.S. nuclear energy sector simply didn’t have the experience and know-how needed to foresee engineering and construction challenges or proactively deal with them in a cost-effective manner when they arose.

This is an unsettling lesson nuclear energy in the United States has to offer to other business sectors throughout the economy. Underinvested talent development combined with baby boom retirements can hasten creative destruction, eliminating entire business sectors at worst and significantly curtailing their growth at best.



[1] Doan, Lynn and Chediak, Mark. “South Carolina May Spend 60 Years Paying for Nukes Never Built.” Bloomberg. August 1st, 2017.
[2] Cardwell, Diane and Soble, Jonathan. “Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power.” New York Times. March 29th, 2017.
[3] Nuclear Energy Institute. “Help Wanted 25,000 Skilled Workers.” Summer 2011. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How far do your wages go?

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager

About a week ago, one of the hot topics in my social media feeds was that “no full-time minimum wage worker can afford a 2-bedroom apartment in any US state.” According to the National low Income Housing Coalition, in some states, including most Northeastern states, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Virginia, and Washington, workers would need to make over $20 to afford the average two-bedroom apartment. This is an economic development issue because housing availability and affordability are major considerations for the talent that companies desire. Sometimes it seems that these conversations spur debates over how to address the needs of the poorest among us, but that is shortsighted—the ability to obtain affordable and decent housing can be a major hurdle for entry-level workers, including teachers, police officers, and other professions that are paramount to a community, but in many communities those workers have to commute from afar or make other arrangements that they would maybe prefer not to, such as having one or more roommates.


















So as I read through the report, I became interested in the broader question of how far do wages go in communities? So updating the data I gathered a couple of years ago, I re-examined the wage/cost differential, which compares the relative wage of a metro area to the relative cost of living index[1] as published by the Council for Community and Economic Research. This analysis allows us to really examine how competitive a community’s wages are in terms of being able to afford that community’s cost of living.

The following table presents the twenty metros that have the most competitive wages as a percentage of the national average annual wage across all metros compared to the relative cost of living. Consistent with the 2014 analysis, Texas metros and several high-growth Southern (like Austin, Atlanta, Dallas, and Nashville), and Midwest metros (like are on this list. Also consistent with the 2014 analysis, the Bridgeport, Connecticut MSA has a very high cost of living compared to the national average, but it still ranks as favorable because its average annual wage is similarly much higher than the national average, so the average worker can handle the expense of living in this metro.

[1] For this analysis, the primary urban area in the C2ER Cost of Living Index was chosen for comparison in instances where a metropolitan area or division has multiple urban areas represented.


Top 20 Metros with Favorable Wage/Cost Differentials, 2016


Source: Council for Community and Economic Research; Economic Modeling Specialists Intl.

Not surprisingly, the twenty metros with the most concerning differentials are in states known for their high cost of living, like Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New York. However, it is interesting to note that two southern communities with lower than average costs of living appear in this list: Auburn, AL (which was in the top 10 in the 2014 data) and Hilton Head, SC. This goes to show that the cost of living on its own does not always tell the full story—but analyses like the housing report or this wage/cost differential allow us to gain context and perspective.

Twenty Metros with the Least Favorable Wage/Cost Differentials, 2016


Source: Council for Community and Economic Research; Economic Modeling Specialists Intl.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Colossal Failure

By J. Mac Holladay, President, CEO, and Founder

Late last week, the Kansas Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to repeal the radical tax plan passed in 2013. The program was supposed to usher in a flood of new jobs. The promised job growth never came. In fact, Kansas gross domestic product grew only .2 percent last year compared to 1.6 percent nationally. Several surrounding states with stable tax systems have flown by Kansas both in job creation and increased investment.

What did come to the state was a huge deficit in the state budget and drastic cuts to education at all levels. During this failed experiment, state school spending dropped from $4,400 per pupil to $3,800 with the poorest districts suffering the most.

The state had $700 million less revenue in 2014 than the year before, and this March the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the funding for public education is “unconstitutionally low” and must be changed.

As Republican State Senator Dinah Skyes said, “we had to take a vote to say no and say, this is not the right direction.” While every state seeks to be competitive on costs, the Kansas experiment went to the extreme in letting thousands of small businesses pay nothing at all and radically reduce personal income taxes.

Earlier this year, one University President in Kansas asked me, how can I plan anything in this atmosphere? A key component of good tax policy is certainty. Both public and private leaders need to know what is going to happen related to stability and revenue flow. Companies looking to expand or locate want to know that their employees will have excellent educational opportunities for them and their children.

Beyond talent, quality of place is the number one factor in healthy local economies. Our firm has been working in several cities in Kansas recently, all are dedicated to making their place better. In recent years, they have been unable to know what exactly was coming or to get any help from the state. Now, maybe that can change. The Legislature has approved a $1.2 billion revenue increase over the next two years.

Kansas is another clear example, we cannot cut our way to prosperity.

Friday, May 5, 2017

“Green Collar” Ag Jobs are Viable Urban Career Paths

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

Agriculture was once the largest employment sector in the country. That time has long passed, of course, pushed aside by advances in industrial technology and the growth of services linked to ever-expanding urban metropolitan areas. Ag jobs are still prevalent in rural communities, though direct on-farm employment now accounts for about 1.3 percent of the U.S. economy.

Ironically, momentum is building to leverage the ag sector for job creation in the very places that eclipsed the farm lifestyle generations ago: urban cores. While so-called “urban agriculture” has been around a while, its benefits were mostly seen as augmenting local food supplies, reusing dormant, often unsightly vacant land, and providing vulnerable populations with alternatives to dangerous street life. These benefits all still apply; however, the growing prominence of colorfully termed “green collar jobs” – including agriculture – has brought an economic development justification into the mix. This is especially true for locally based wealth-building strategies not tied to traditional economic development pursuits such as corporate attraction or expansion of established firms.

On the vanguard of community wealth building (CWB) strategies tied to green collar jobs is Democracy Collaborative, a non-profit advocating a “new economic system” of shared corporate ownership and management. Their best known acolyte is Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. Among its three worker-owned businesses, Green City Growers is the largest food-production greenhouse in a core urban area in the U.S.

In fact, urban agriculture as economic development is becoming so prevalent that it would be impossible to list every prominent effort being implemented across the country. Instead, I’ll highlight a few green shoots (pun intended) of the movement.

  • Advocacy organization Urban Farming has developed a Coexistence Model that raises awareness about key positive impacts of urban ag. Among these is Job Creation. Urban Farming hosts community workshops to raise awareness about green collar jobs and connects residents to job training opportunities, particularly in green industries. The group has installed several Urban Farming Edible Walls in U.S. cities to provide training and job opportunities through living wall systems.
  • Green Collar Foods is a platform for the urban environment that empowers a select group of local residents with both the agricultural and technological tools to produce specialty crops that yield a financial return, combat “food deserts,” and supplement nutritional gaps. Part of a recently announced initiative in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, Green Collar Foods will create an indoor vertical farming campus in the community.
  • Detroit is the city that has most enthusiastically embraced urban agriculture as an economic development model. In fact, a full-fledged urban “agrihood” is launching in the city’s North End, supported by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, the most aggressive state-run urban agriculture movement in the country. To plant seeds of food entrepreneurship (pun #2) in the city’s youth, the Detroit Food Academy works with local educators, chefs, and business owners to inspire young Detroiters (ages 13-24) through self-directed entrepreneurial experiences rooted in food.
  • REV Birmingham, a local revitalization agency in Birmingham, Alabama, launched the Urban Food Project to build a robust local food economy while creating healthy food access. The program assists corner store owners in the purchasing, marketing, and selling of fresh produce. The Project also helps farmers plan their crops and create access to new markets by distributing their goods.
  • Findlay Kitchen is an 8,000 square foot, shared-use kitchen space located in the historic Findlay Market district in Cincinnati. The Kitchen is a nonprofit organization that supports new and existing food entrepreneurs by providing affordable access to commercial-grade kitchen equipment and ample storage space. As a food business incubator, the facility partners with external programs and organizations to provide the necessary training, mentorship, and resources to aid business growth.
  • Coordinated coalitions directing local food and urban agriculture systems are also becoming more prevalent. The Atlanta Local Food Initiative is a network focused on building a local food system that enhances human health, promotes environmental renewal, fosters local economies, and links rural and urban communities. The Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Council works to promote a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system within its ten-county region. The Sonoma County Food System Alliance is a county-based coalition striving to improve the local food system through community engagement and collective action.

There are literally dozens if not hundreds more examples of urban agriculture and green collar job efforts being implemented across the country, including many focused on transitioning soldiers into green collar employment after leaving the armed forces. If your community isn’t accruing the multiple benefits of an urban agriculture strategy – job creation, locally produced fresh food, urban revitalization, health and wellness, crime reduction, beautification, etc. – you’re missing out on a really fast-growing trend (final pun).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Crisis That Never Came

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Regional planning is not a field rife with natural law. The field, and professionals in it, deal with messy, complex problems that are difficult to codify into over-arching, all-encompassing truths. However, if there is one truism in the field that resembles natural law it is this: new capacity yields new demand. It is a phrase that flows off the tongues of transportation planners as easily as pedestrian traffic moves on any Atlanta sidewalk. It is a phrase to use when a governor promotes a new, roads-focused transportation plan or a county commission chooses to add lanes to a major artery. It is a phrase to use right before casually extolling the need for a robust transportation network that encompasses bicycles, buses, streetcars, and/or light rail. And while planners have had numerous opportunities to test out the affirmative, they have rarely had the opportunity to test the rule’s corollary at scale. What happens if you take away significant road capacity in a major metropolitan area? Does it result in less traffic? 

Atlanta is now in the midst of discovering whether the tried and true traffic rule does in fact have a corollary. On March 30th, a bridge connecting the downtown connector to Georgia 400 and I-85 collapsed in a fire. The major artery handles approximately one quarter of a million cars on a daily basis. And while it is still too early to tell, the initial results indicate that “carmageddon” is unlikely to happen as a result of the disaster and that gridlock will not render Atlanta residents incapable of doing anything save for wallowing in despair. It has not been the doomsday scenario many (i.e. all) were expecting, and certainly, not what public officials were planning for. The city and the region is still open for business, children still go to school, and the supply chain still flows. The city and the metro region is surviving. Regional systems are not inflexible, immovable objects. Regional systems adapt and adjust to new conditions should disaster strike the system’s core. 

Some initial observations that engender adaptation include the following: 

  • Folks will adjust behavior: While complete data is scarce on the entirety of the event, more would-be drivers are utilizing alternatives. On March 31st, the day after the collapse, MARTA reported a 25 percent increase in ridership and an 80 percent increase in Breeze Card sales according to MARTA’s CEO Keith Parker. Station parking across the network is at or near capacity. Whether these new riders become transit converts is still anyone’s guess. 
  • No matter how terrible the commute, folks will still drive: Surely there is a limit to the pain and suffering a driver is willing to undergo. Atlanta commuters may be reaching that upper limit, but right now folks are still driving. Buford Highway, a road that runs parallel to the I-85 Bridge is jammed with cars during a now lengthened rush hour. If the bridge collapse has done anything it has shifted traffic to local roads. Whether it is Piedmont or Cheshire Bridge, I-85 and Georgia 400 traffic (the highways most heavily impacted by the collapse) is being funneled onto local roads that now serve demand beyond their capacity. These smaller road capillaries are central to Atlanta’s ability to thwart wholesale crisis. 

The caveat of these observations is that the situation is still evolving and there is not yet a complete picture how the Atlanta’s transportation system adapted throughout the entirety of the crisis. The situation still has the potential to deteriorate in the short term. Over the long term, it is likely that this event will become just another blip in commuters’ memories with no real change in commuter behavior. This is not a failure of Atlantans to leverage this crisis for some higher purpose. Rather, it speaks to the resiliency and flexibility of regional systems and the people who live in them.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Making the Most of Inter-City Visits

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

The inter-city visit is a ubiquitous program for most economic development organizations (EDOs) of size in the U.S. They typically involve an EDO enlisting volunteers and partners to travel to a community achieving some type of success – either in its economy as a whole or some aspect of economic, community, or workforce development – to observe, learn, and potentially glean best practices for application back home. Usually the only cost to participate is to cover air travel expenses and lodging. Many well-heeled EDOs offer inter-city visits as perks to top investors.

In a world as cutthroat as economic development, the inter-city visit has always struck me as possibly the most welcoming example of inter-community collegiality and goodwill. After all, most of the places visiting you are existing or potential competitors for jobs and talent. In reality, the keys to the kingdom are not necessarily in identifying best-practice programs (which are mostly well known), but in seeing how communities implement them and the role of public and private partners and volunteers in these efforts. From my experience, leadership capacity is the number one determinant of economic success.

I wholeheartedly believe that inter-city visits are an excellent use of resources and provide invaluable benefit for EDOs and the communities they represent. Many effective policies and programs being considered for strategic implementation can be hard to conceptualize in practice; witnessing them being advanced and experiencing their benefits can be revelatory for practitioner and volunteer alike. Even brick-and-mortar projects with detailed renderings are typically more compelling to in person.

My principal pet peeve with inter-city visits is the practice of travelling to a city or region with no real application to your community’s priority challenges and opportunities. As famously successful as Austin, Texas (a hugely popular inter-city destination) has been, the presence of a state capital, major research university with 50,000 smart kids, a decades-long live music scene, and beautiful rolling hills and rivers is not something most places can emulate.

So my advice to EDOs implementing inter-city visit programs is to pick aspirational places you have something in common with, be it geography, economic structure, climate, institutional presence, demographic composition – whatever. Just find destinations where learnings can translate into actionable initiatives back home with good likelihoods for success. While it is certainly most cost-effective to plan travel around agendas packed full of cool things to see and people to meet, EDOs shouldn’t be opposed to scheduling single-issue trips centered on a major competitive challenge or opportunity. For example, if you want to launch a comprehensive cradle-to-career talent development initiative, visit a community that’s knocked one out of the park like Cincinnati or Nashville and cram the trip full of every last opportunity to learn from their experiences.

From my long-ago (and mostly suppressed) experiences as a screenwriter, there is one piece of advice on story development that sticks in my head: If you want a scene to have optimal impact, you should “show it not say it.” In other words, don’t use voiceover to talk about how beautiful Mrs. Weathersby was, show a faded portrait of her. While a stretch, I’m going to use this example for EDO inter-city visits; rather than saying how great a place or program is, let your partners and volunteers see it. And, as with the best movies, keep the examples you show them in the realm of plausible believability.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Future of Work in Cities

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager

There are some economic development truths that many of us can stand behind—two are that talent is the top issue in economic development today and that technology has changed the landscape of businesses which in turn affects our workforce. Here at Market Street, one of our popular research offerings is our Workforce Sustainability Analysis, where we take a look at a community’s talent strengths and weaknesses, and a component of that document takes on the question of how susceptible is that community to continued advances in automation. 

In 2016, the National League of Cities published its The Future of Work in Cities report. In it, they provide a history of shifts in occupations and work trends in America. It also shares the McKinsey Global Institute’s prediction that “15-25 percent of tasks in manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance, and agriculture could be cost-effectively automated by 2025,” that “commercial—service robots could perform 7-12 percent of tasks in food preparation, health care, commercial cleaning, and elder care by 2025,” and that if technological advance continue at their present rapid pace, “automation tools could perform the work of between 110 and 140 million people globally by 2025.” In addition, self-driving cars will eventually become a threat to truck-drivers. 

So what can communities do to prepare for these changes? The last section of this report provides several recommendations for communities to consider. The following are just a select few that Market Street believes in and supports through our work across the country:

  • Public officials must work with business leaders, educational institutional leadership, and community-based organizations to match education and workforce training programs with evolving employer needs. It is ever-important to build and strengthen the “cradle to career” pipeline to ensure that homegrown talent is prepared for the jobs in the community while also attracting talent.
  • Cities, counties, regional, and state partners should work together to provide a business-friendly environment, particularly for entrepreneurs and high-growth startup businesses. 
  • Communities must give attention to equity within business development programs by supporting minority- and women-owned businesses and incentivizing investment in distressed neighborhoods through programs like Georgia Department of Community Affairs’ Enterprise Zone program.
  • Investing in the community’s infrastructure will remain vital to economic development—high-speed internet and diverse options for commuting are critical to competitiveness in today’s talent-driven environment.
  • Retraining displaced workers is one of the only ways to keep up with technological advances. As occupations are phased out, there must be a clear way for those workers to obtain transitional skills training so that they can continue to work in related fields.

There are several other worthwhile recommendations in this report as well as case studies from cities like Pittsburgh and Seattle. If you have a few minutes to spare, The Future of Work in Cities is definitely a must-read!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Is the American Dream Just a Pipe Dream?


By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant

In 1970, the percentage of American 30-year-olds who were earning more than their parents did at 30 was 92%. The percentage now is around 50%. That statistic hit me hard when I heard it on the Freakanomics podcast from January 18th (I got a bit behind in my podcast listening at the start of the year. I’ve been catching up during the last couple of weeks.).

In economic development, I think a lot about upward mobility and improving opportunities for prosperity. I wasn’t very surprised by that 50% number. What surprised me was the 92%. I was in college when the dot-com bubble burst and the job market wasn’t great when I graduated. When I was back on the job market again after my master’s degree in 2008, it was worse. I’ve been listening to people talk about the decline of the American dream my entire adult life. So, I didn’t find 50% surprising. What I found so surprising was that America actually used to be really good at this. Really, really good. Less than half a century ago 92% of 30-year-olds made more than their parents had! My jaw was on the floor. How did we lose so much ground so fast? And, more importantly, do we have any chance of regaining it?

Source: The Equality of Opportunity Project

The Equality of Opportunity Project addresses the first question in a paper from December of last year. They identify two important economic trends affecting incomes of people born in the 1980s relative to those of people born in the 1940s: lower growth rates in Gross Domestic Product and greater inequality in growth distribution. The paper concludes that while lower growth rates in the GDP play some role, it is the inequality in growth distribution that accounts for most of the drop. A smaller cohort of people benefit from growth today than benefited in the 1970s.

This suggests that in order to improve opportunities for prosperity we should focus not just on economic growth, but even more so on spreading the benefits of what growth there is around. 

The Equal Opportunity Project recently published work on the role of colleges in intergenerational mobility. There are some really interesting findings in this work, including their list of the top colleges by mobility rate—those who have large numbers of students who come from poor families and end up with high incomes. Topping the list is Cal State University – LA. Nine of the top ten are not-for-profit schools and of those only one is private (Pace University in New York). Four of the top ten are in the NYC metro; three are in southern California; three are in southern Texas. 

There is also a list of the top ten elite colleges that enroll the highest percentage of low- and middle-income students. UCLA tops that list, but is the only public school on the list. The data examined in this study confirm what most of us already presume, namely, that low- and middle-income students who attend top colleges end up earning almost as much rich students who attend the same college. Attending a top college seems to really boost an individuals’ chance at mobility. (For more on colleges and mobility, here are a couple articles from The New York Times: “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60,” “America’s Great Working-Class Colleges,” “Dreams Stall as CUNY, New York City’s Engine of Mobility, Sputters.”)

All this college data is interesting, but Raj Chetty, who is one of the principle investigators at The Equal Opportunity Project and who was interviewed on the aforementioned Freakanomics podcast, maintains that the biggest drivers of upward mobility have less to do with where we go to college and more to do with where we grow up. Chetty and his colleagues found that where you grow up plays a big role in your chances of upward mobility. They identified five significant factors that play a role in determining rates of upward mobility:

1) residential segregation – the more segregated a city, by income and by race, the lower the rates of upward mobility

2) income inequality – higher levels of inequality predict lower rates of upward mobility

3) family structure – growing up in a neighborhood with a lot of single parents is associated with lower rates of upward mobility (even for kids who grow up in two-parent households)

4) social capital – places with higher social capital have higher rates of upward mobility

5) school quality – places with better public schools have higher rates of upward mobility

Chetty is quick to point out that while there are significant correlations between the first four factors and rates of upward mobility, we’re still unsure about the causal mechanisms in those cases. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t use this information to help us create policy that will lead to higher rates of upward mobility—that will help us recapture some of the American dream. And, we don’t need to create policy on the national level to do it. Many of these things can be addressed at the city, county, and state level. 

If you want to learn more about the findings, I suggest listening to the Freakanomics episode from January 18th “Is The American Dream Really Dead?” (or you can read the transcript of the podcast on the website). You can also check out these Equal Opportunity Project papers: 
And here are some articles from the New York Times based on the data from some of these papers: 

You can also check out one of our past posts: “The Growing Threat of Economic Immobility.”