COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Struggling communities dot the national map from coast to coast. Only some are successful in bouncing back to prosperity.
A new analysis by Ohio State University researchers outlines what works and what doesn't, offering something of a roadmap for policy makers who want their communities to succeed.
"How Can Struggling Communities Make a Comeback?" is the newest policy brief from the S. William Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy. The entire report is available to download at http://aede.osu.edu/programs/swank/.
"One community can't just take what worked in another community and follow an identical strategy," said Mark Partridge, Swank Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics. "You need to find what works for your community. But we have discovered some general practices that seem to work."
Results can be measured objectively over the long-term by analyzing population and employment growth; housing prices and levels of amenities; and wages and workforce skill level. "These are hard measures communities can use to determine their progress," said Amanda Weinstein, research assistant and lead author of the report.
To turn around a struggling community, policy-makers should concentrate on several factors, the researchers said:
- Provide good public services. "It sounds simple but people often forget the basics," said Partridge, who also holds appointments with the university's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and Ohio State University Extension.
"It's easy for people and politicians to talk about what the government does badly, but there are certain things the government does that the private sector can't," Weinstein said. "Government should concentrate on those things, and let the private sector do what it does best. For example, the private sector does a better job, through is own investments and through consumer buying power, determining what will be a success. The government doesn't have a good track record at picking winners."
- Decrease "disamenities," such as crime and pollution. "People have to want to live in a community, and businesses have to want to locate there," Partridge said. "In urban areas, safety is a major concern. It's very hard to find a case where a city made a comeback without tackling security issues. The revitalization of Manhattan (in New York City) started in the 1970s, but it wasn't until they got crime under control that it really came back."
Combating pollution is another key element, the researchers said. "People want to live in a place that has less pollution," Partridge said. "And, the fastest-growing industries are not big polluters. Communities that back off on pollution controls are supporting 19th and 20th century businesses, not those of the 21st century."
- Improve amenities, such as parks and natural resources, and invest in infrastructure and transportation. "These are examples of government paying attention to doing what it does best," Partridge said, but budgets for these types of services are often the first to be cut during tough economic times.
"Policy-makers need to pay attention to the long-term," Weinstein said. "If you put in a park, you can't expect employment to jump immediately. But you can expect that you are making your community a place that people want to live."
Similarly, public transportation systems must take into account areas of worst congestion as well as how best to connect workers with jobs -- each community will be different.
- Develop a supportive business environment for all firms -- don't play favorites. "Offering preferential incentives to attract or retain one particular company isn't a good strategy," Partridge said. "Instead, take that money and use it to reduce tax rates for all businesses. Winners will emerge, but they will be based on those with good business ideas, not those with the best political connections."
Too often, small businesses pay the price when tax incentives are offered to large companies. "And that's despite the fact that most people work for small or medium-sized companies," Weinstein said. "It's very important to level the playing field so that all businesses benefit from policy decisions."
And if a large business closes its doors or leaves for greener pastures, it's doubly important to have a thriving business community. "If you have built a strong environment, all of these other businesses will be percolating around, and they'll eventually grow and fill in the gap," Partridge said.
- Invest in education and job training. "All families want to send their kids to good schools," Partridge said. At the same time, Weinstein said, not everyone needs a four-year college degree -- two-year degrees and job-training programs are just as important to have available.
- Make government more efficient and transparent. "Governments, school districts and other public entities need to look more at consolidating services and administration across jurisdictional lines," Weinstein said. Currently, Dayton and Montgomery County are looking at the possibility of combining their governments while leaving suburban governments in place -- the models are Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky. Also, the Cleveland metropolitan area is examining the possibility of revenue-sharing.
In addition, policies need to be in place for the long-term instead of shifting with every change of administration, the researchers said.
"There is a lot of stopping and starting new strategies," Weinstein said. "It makes it extremely difficult for businesses to plan for the future when there's no follow-through in policy."
An open decision-making process with plenty of room for public input is an essential ingredient for struggling communities to make a comeback, Partridge said. "Right now, we too often have a horse-and-buggy government when what we really need is a 21st century government," he said.