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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

A man of ideas

Richard Florida wants to have it both ways on Detroit. On the one hand, that city, like the rest of the Rust Belt, is doomed, doomed, doomed. Might as well give the few people left bus tickets out of town, tear the place down and start over:

In the depths of the Great Recession, in the early spring of 2009, as the country was scrambling for ways to stop a seemingly bottomless plunge, the economic development guru Richard Florida weighed in with a high-profile prescription on the cover of the Atlantic, titled “How the Crash Will Reshape America.” In the piece, which Florida later expanded into a book, The Great Reset, he argued that the recession was going to leave behind an entirely new economic order and geography, and that the country’s policy makers needed to adapt to this new order and encourage it, even if it meant leaving some places and industries behind. And it was pretty clear what one of those left-behinds would be: Detroit.

Florida wrote: “The Rust Belt in particular looks likely to shed vast numbers of jobs, and some of its cities and towns, from Cleveland to St. Louis to Buffalo to Detroit, will have a hard time recovering. Since 1950, the manufacturing sector has shrunk from 32 percent of nonfarm employment to just 10 percent. This decline is the result of long-term trends—increasing foreign competition and, especially, the relentless replacement of people with machines—that look unlikely to abate. But the job losses themselves have proceeded not steadily, but rather in sharp bursts, as recessions have killed off older plants and resulted in mass layoffs that are never fully reversed during subsequent upswings.”

But that wazs then. Now he's sounding a little more upbeat:

As Florida predicted back in 2009, Detroit is in very dire straits. But is Florida citing that as confirmation that his 2009 piece was correct and that we should, in fact, be letting the city and the rest of the “old order fall”? Far from it. In a big piece on the Atlantic Cities Web site this week titled “Don’t Let Bankruptcy Fool You: Detroit’s Not Dead,” Florida made a strong case for redoubling investment in the city: “Detroit's problems surely run deep. But beneath its fiscal problems, and all the hemming and hawing about them, lie the seeds of rebirth for the city and the broader metro region. Since the economic crisis, and perhaps somewhat before it, the first signs of recovery and revitalization, modest as they may be, are finally starting to surface.”

Hemming and hawing? You mean like the fellow who, when it mattered a few years ago, with the auto industry on the line, wrote that “no major city in the U.S. looks more beleaguered than Detroit”? Now, Florida is noting enthusiastically that the metro Detroit economy produces “nearly $200 billion in economic output” and is “larger than New Zealand's and not too much smaller than that of Hong Kong or Singapore.” “The size and scale of the region's economy, the quality of knowledge institutions, its International airport, and openness to global talent put Detroit in a different category than other hard-pressed Rustbelt cities,” he writes. Huh, not bad for a place that was “more beleaguered” than all others just a few years ago. Maybe the jump has something to do with the auto bailout that he so strongly opposed in 2009, which now has factories humming even inside the bankrupt city?

I bring this up because Florida is no stranger to Fort Wayne. City planning and urban development types were all gushy over him when he was peddling his "creative class" magic bullet for development. They brought him here for a speech and fairly swooned when he said cities should not try to bring individual companies in but should work on the amenities those in the creative class treasured so they woul want to come here. I confess to being more impressed with the idea than I should have been when I first heard it. Since, I've come to see it as just another fad clutched at then discarded in the futile attempt for that magic bullet to make a region's economy work better. It's bad enough when you can find so many development gurus whose ideas contradict each other. When of of the "experts" starts disagreeing with himself, you really know its time to start tuning them all out and just hunkering down to do do all the boring little things the entrepreneurial class really treasures, like cutting red tape and streamlining tax codes.