Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

The Death of Detroit – Who’s Next?

As I promised in a previous post, I’m going to go out on a limb (as you’ll see, not too far out) and predict who might be next.  I’ll start by recapping a bit, and discuss how I came to my predictions.  

In the previous post, I offered a list of attributes of a resilient community.  For each item in the list, I have tried to develop as objective an indicator or indicators as I could.  Here’s what I used:
•  Civic activity – charitable giving and migration in or out (both normalized to population).
•  Connections – number of civic organizations (normalized to population).
•  Leadership – this was somewhat subjective.  I looked at recent public statements of mayors (and sometimes other leaders) to try to get a sense of their effectiveness.  Specifically, I looked for a concrete vision and not playing the “Blame Game.”
•  Economic and social vitality – I used a suite of economic indicators ranging from median household income and transfer payments to how far their economy had fallen during the Great Recession.  For social vitality, I looked at crime rates and entertainment establishments (normalized to population).
•  Confidence – here, I looked at both the economic trajectory, esp. how well they had recovered from the Great Recession, and any other major accomplishments in the last five years.  I also looked at the normalized rate of migration.

I first screened about 110 cities from all over the country simply looking at the Brookings MetroMonitor data for how each fared in the recession.  I also looked for additional cities based on large population losses.  I collected the complete data set for 18 cities.  Most importantly, I also looked at each of these cities in the context of the events that were most likely to further disrupt them.

What I came up with isn’t really a prediction of the next failure. It is more a judgement of which cities are the most fragile in terms of likely disruptive events.

So which ones won, er, lost? Four really stood out (in a bad way):

Cape Coral, FL (hurricane, economic disruption).  Cape Coral is a bedroom community in Lee County, near Ft. Myers.  It has the dubious distinction of having the poorest recovery from the recent recession of the Brookings Top 100 metros.  It was hit hard by the Recession primarily because it relied on real estate for growth.  It has a very large out-migration – leaving behind lots of vacant homes – that has been ongoing since 2005 (In fact, in my neighborhood in Aiken SC, we have three former residents; we call them “half backs,” because they came from the North to Florida, and then have moved halfway back.).  Hard hit by the hurricanes of 2003-4, it was able to rebuild primarily because of the influx of federal and insurance dollars.  But now there is essentially no affordable flood insurance available, so many have opted out.  The many foreclosures mean lots of homesteads not kept up, and likely a much higher debris shower in a hurricane.  Cape Coral’s tax base is primarily property-based; there is no industrial base.  Lee County had developed a good recovery plan in response to the hurricanes of 2003-4, but has not kept it current.  If Cape Coral gets hit with one or more big hurricanes, it is doubtful that it will get back to even its current economic and social levels. 

Flint, MI (primarily economic disruption).  It’s somewhat unfair to describe Flint as “fragile;” it is at least as much of a basket case as Detroit, just not as widely recognized.  The highest out-migration of any of the cities I looked at; highest crime rates in the country; boarded up homes; leadership that seems intent only on pointing the finger at  whoever is the “guilty party” de jour [the economy, those who moved to the suburbs, the state…]; high unemployment; huge obligations that can’t possibly be met; and poor air quality.

Gary, IN; Youngstown, OH (primarily economic disruption). When I first moved to South Carolina, and we looked at national rankings, for example in education, we always said, “Thank God for Mississippi.”  These two, and others like them in the Rust Belt, can point to Flint as being worse off than they are (and in fact Gary has).  However, both these cities also have high outmigrations, high crime, large numbers of vacant houses, and poor air quality.  However, they both also have one advantage Flint does not have – they are close to one or more large cities that aren’t basket cases.  Gary has an interesting dynamic – the state has in some ways actively prevented the city from recovering [I intend to discuss this in a posting soon, because the situation is far from unique and deserves attention.].

Others to watch:
•  Newark.  If it didn’t have Cory Booker, it would be on the list above.
•  Many California cities.  The state’s bankrupt; many of the cities have made promises they can’t keep (and some have already gone bankrupt); and no one is paying enough attention to the likelihood of catastrophic flooding in the Sacramento Valley.
•  Las Vegas.  If it wasn’t a government town…
•  Several other Florida cities.  Many are similar in characteristics to Cape Coral, but have somewhat better leadership or tax bases.

I’m not pointing the finger at any of these in derision, but rather to point out their fragility.  They are (or at least represent) the least resilient communities in America.  In my last post on this topic, I’m going to talk about how they can go about making themselves more resilient.