The Urban Engine, or Trading Places Part 1

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Welcome to the first in a short series of three posts inspired by three very different places.  I’ve spent today immersed in national and global issues thanks to the Federal Policy Forum hosted by the International Economic Development Council here in Washington, D.C. The second and third posts, as you’ll see, will address local development issues in a mid-size and small community.

Between the articles I read on the airplane, the content of the sessions and accessory conversations with other participants, I have notes on papers small and large hanging from folders and pockets and briefcase.  It’s all related to a notion I sketched out in a post about regional differentiation a few months ago, but I’d like to summarize a new line of inquiry related to the conference.

Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis and Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell have led an effort described in the publication of Retooling for Growth: Building a 21st Century Economy in America’s Older Industrial Areas (see a summary of the book here).  The content is unabashedly “metrocentric” in light of the following metrics outlined in a session today.  The nation’s largest one hundred metro areas:

• Use 12% of American land area;

• House and employ 65% of our population;

• Are home to 74% of college graduates;

• Generate 78% of patents; and

• Create 75% of gross domestic product.

In the words of Paul Brophy, a consultant who hatched the project, the metro areas are engines for economic, social, scientific and cultural development despite the increasingly conspicuous absence of a significant federal role or resources.  In particular, he says, to move the U.S. forward it is critical to harness and foster entrepreneurship, human capital, infrastructure and what he termed “quality of places” in our urban centers.  A few thoughts on the prospective form of such infrastructure and placemaking improvements:

• Establishment of a National Infrastructure Bank to provide coordinated, significant, long-term dollars for urban infrastructure reinvestment, with accountability measures in place for both the local and federal partners involved.

• Perhaps as part of or independent from the infrastructure bank, aggressively fund urban transportation networks, including transit.  Spendy, yes.  Essential to be competitive, definitely.  This month’s Urban Land magazine reports that the City of London’s Crossrail project will extend subterranean Underground lines at a cost of $30 billion.  The business community, in a testament to the project’s competitive potential, will fund much of the investment.

• Adoption of local, state and federal policy that recognizes the missed opportunity that vacant and polluted urban land represents, and enables its reuse as developed property or open space such as parks.

• Perhaps most germane to the Cents of Place forum, standardization of the development process and fundamental property tax reform is also in order.  In Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota – contiguous and mutually dependent municipalities – zoning codes and the development process continue to remain estranged.  And, as documented by a property tax report I authored last year, the current property tax system stifles the concentration of tax base upon which the health of our urban areas (and the states that rely on them) will rise or fall.

• Adoption of at least a regional, and at best a statewide approach to subsidies that seek to attract businesses location.  This idea is hardly new:  See the Economic War Between the States report published by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve in 1994.

• Focus on retaining the talented people who arrive in your region from Bangalore or Missoula or Moscow, to pursue educational experience.  See the integrated approach Philadelphia has taken to housing, employing and engaging students before they graduate and leave.

Resolving these underlying finance and policy issues is a priority that simply can’t wait.

Still with me?  Then, dear reader, indulge yourself and browse over one other publication I encountered today:  The 2007 State New Economy Index compiled by the Kauffman Foundation.

Photo:  Musely, Flickr