JACKSON, Mich.—With a renewed interest in Middle America, it is a good time to examine both the plight of our Rust Belt urban centers and their untapped assets.
The Great Lakes region in particular is characterized by classic downtowns sporting Italianate-style buildings made from the venerable Chicago Common brick. Some even feature architectural works of art by famed designers like Detroit’s Albert Kahn. Today this once vibrant part of our country—filled with hard working, second-generation Americans and underutilized downtowns—is experiencing a quiet renaissance spurred by unlikely sources.
Despite going through one of the toughest economic downturns since the Great Depression, the Great Lakes region still has a fair amount of large businesses and corporate headquarters in hundreds of medium-sized urban centers. Yet these companies are fighting a revolving door: new hires cost them excessive amounts of money to train, and too soon they find themselves retraining replacements. Why? According to Governing magazine
…the millennial generation, adults 34 and younger, many of whom continue to express a preference for walkable neighborhoods with bike lanes, public transit and a mix of recreational amenities. Last year, millennials became the largest component of the American workforce. … In 2013, the Urban Land Institute found that 62 percent of millennials preferred a home close to shops, restaurants and offices.
Smaller urban areas suffer from vacant storefronts, lack of dining and entertainment options, and, most importantly, market-rate housing. Since the 1970s, businesses have fled to malls and highway interchanges as well-meaning but misguided planners turned much of the existing downtown residential inventory into federally-subsidized, low-income housing. Because of the lack of housing choices, new millennial hires often choose to live a long commute away—in bigger urban cores where they can find the lifestyle they prefer. But after driving through the snowy Great Lakes winter, many quit and instead find employment they can easily walk or bike to in larger cities. In short, this new workforce prioritizes their living environment over job loyalty.
So how does a town attract businesses to save their Midwestern Main Street? There are five key ingredients:
Infrastructure. Local government must invest in downtown roads, streetscapes, placemaking, parks, and trails. If you have the vestiges of 1970s urban planning, such as roads turned into walking plazas or one-way bypasses speeding potential customers around and away from downtown businesses, you must remove these impediments to growth now. Many of these projects can take advantage of federal and state incentives that already exist.
Entertainment. One of the fastest ways to rejuvenate a downtown is to encourage development of restaurants and pubs. Basic local tax incentives, a progressive Downtown Development Authority, and a destination venue such as a craft brewery or distillery can serve as a focal point to start the resurgence. Many states offer redevelopment-zone liquor licenses at reasonable rates to spur growth.
Market-Rate Housing. Many downtowns have vacant lots that are available for new construction of market-rate apartments. Finding willing developers can be a challenge; even though available apartment inventory is low, the prevailing market rental rates are still …read more
Via:: American Conservative
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