small_citiesby James A. Bacon

Many economists contend that the economic deck is stacked against America’s small cities. Labor markets in the knowledge economy favor large cities; corporations are drawn to large labor markets where they have a bigger pool of prospective employees to recruit from; employees are drawn to larger labor markets where they have more employers to choose from. By this line of logic, smaller metros suffer an enduring competitive disadvantage. Geographically speaking, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

But Joel Kotkin, perhaps America’s most vocal urbanism critic, says decline is not inevitable. While the smallest metropolitan/micropolitan regions (under 100,000 residents) have lost population, a group he classifies as “small cities” (regions between 100,000 and 250,000 residents) actually has seen 13.5% population growth since 2000 — 10% percent faster than the national growth rate, and twice that of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.

Small cities, Kotkin suggests, are large enough to support the basic infrastructure — hospitals, schools, airports, broadband — critical to economic growth. Not all have prospered, but many have. He categorizes the successful small cities into four categories: (1) Boomer Boomtowns, which are attracting retiring Boomers; (2) Energy Towns, which are benefiting from the fracking revolution, (3) College Towns and (4) Government towns, which benefit from federal and state government spending, typically military spending and state capitals.

Recent performance suggests that small cities have better economic prospects than commonly acknowledged, Kotkin argues, although he quickly adds that declining government spending could hurt the Government Towns and that all small cities face a challenge of attracting young families.

Virginia’s small cities have been fair-to-middling performers in comparison to the 167 cities ranked according to a composite of four metrics: population growth, job growth, real per capita personal income growth, and growth of regional GDP per job, all between 2000 and 2012. Three of Virginia’s “small cities” fall into Kotkin’s category of College Towns. The economies of Charlottesville, Blacksburg and Harrisonburg are dominated by local state universities. (See the list above.)

I have long argued that the challenge of most of Virginia outside the urban crescent is to decline gracefully. In the long run, it is hopeless to prop up every small mill town through economic development subsidies. The best bet for Southside Virginia, Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley is not to intensify industrial recruitment — it’s to concentrate growth in cities that are large enough to potentially become self-sustaining in the knowledge economy.

I know that’s a hard pill for many to swallow, but if rural Virginians want to create a future for their children anywhere near home, it will most likely be in a city large enough to recruit and retain 21st-century jobs. As a practical matter, that means focusing resources on the five cities listed above, plus Roanoke, Lynchburg, Bristol-Abingdon and Danville.

These regions also can help themselves by embracing the smart-growth and smart-cities strategies advocated on this blog. By keeping the cost of government low, they will have more leeway to provide an attractive trade-off between taxes and urban amenities that creative-class workers are looking for.

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3 responses to “Hope for Small Cities”

  1. here I went out of my way to let HillCityJim do his thing without me monopolizing the conversation and what happens! geeze!

    I simply do not agree with the narrative. Politely but disagree. see below.

    re: ” but if rural Virginians want to create a future for their children anywhere near home, it will most likely be in a city large enough to recruit and retain 21st-century jobs. As a practical matter, that means focusing resources on the five cities listed above, plus Roanoke, Lynchburg, Bristol-Abingdon and Danville.”

    are you presuming that they have a good education … which we know is not necessarily the case in Virginia more often than not.

    how are you going to recruit 21st century jobs if kids in Va do not have those skills?

    if you are an economically disadvantaged kid in a school in Virginia – you are mostly crap out of luck to get 21st century competitive education unless you luck out by living in one of the few neighborhood districts that actually can provide you with that education. Elsewhere- throughout much of Va – you are crap out of luck.

    Perhaps, we should actually highlight the best schools in Va and their neighborhoods, (rather than call them outliers), where you’d have to live to go to those schools! when mom is working for minimum wage – geographic choices, should be easy!

    we seem to keep trying to label Virginia according to geography and “culture” for jobs and education.

    our first economic goal in Virginia, in my opinion, should be to assure that every school in Va provides a truly equal opportunity for the economically disadvantaged to achieve the education they need to actually move to where the jobs are.

    Kids are not political.. they have no say in their circumstances, they don’t vote, but we have too many of us who would stand by and watch them go down the tubes because their their father went to prison and mama ended up working two minimum-wage jobs and was no help in their education.

    As I’ve said before – I have no problem with private providers getting involved in this – as long as we hold them to the same standards as we do public schools – especially when it comes to the economically disadvantaged.

    we have “deniers” .. who say – it’s all about economic development – as if education was not it.

  2. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    Great Post. I completely agree with everything you wrote except one thing.

    Obviously, a lot of these small cities do have a fighting chance….I still think Roanoke has some serious potential along with H’burg, Charlottesville, Abingdon-Bristol, and Lynchburg. (You’d be shocked at how many folks from Staunton actually commute to C’ville—I know I am—-I won’t say they’ve “blended”, but there’s a lot more cross-polination than most realize. Just like I’ve seen way more cross-polination b/w Richmond and Charlottesville in the past 5 years than I ever thought was imaginable. Lots of restaurants in both have opened up in the other location.)

    The one quibble is Danville. Now, I know it’s not popular to say, but….when you look at the important variables, I just don’t see it. Very old population. The young people who are there aren’t very well educated. And the public school system is atrocious.

    Plus, it’s 45 minutes from Greensboro, NC which can be both a blessing and a curse…In this case, probably a curse. It’s close enough to attract the bright kids to live/work there, but they’re close enough to their parents in Danville that they can swing by on a weekend for a visit.

    I know someone who works at the state and they just roll their eyes at the mention of the city. Every Governor since Warner has dropped a pile of money in there. And the population and economic base continue to decline.

    Whereas the other cities you’ve mentioned (L’burg, Roanoke, C’ville, H’burg) have seen stabilization or growth as the economy has transformed in the past 15 years, I just can’t see any objective way to say that Danville has.

    This isn’t an attack on the area. They’re good folks there. But at what point does a state, which is looking at increasingly scarce resources, decide that it can’t keep pumping money down there? It’s a sad tale.

    1. You’re right, Danville may not be economically viable. My only thought is, if you’re going to try to save the economy of Southside, pick a population center that has the potential to become self sustaining. Danville has a better chance than Martinsville, Stuart, South Hill, Emporia and the other courthouse/mill towns in that part of the state. Sad to say, but true.

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